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Ivo Daalder: While the West dithers, Russia provokes and meddles

Ivo Daalder: While the West dithers, Russia provokes and meddles

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August was busy for Russia this year. While dealing with growing popular protests in the east, Moscow has sought to distract attention by engaging in nefarious activities, both at home and abroad. It has prepared to intervene in neighboring Belarus; confronted U.S. military forces on land, at sea and in the air; stepped up its interference in the U.S. presidential election; and poisoned yet another opposition figure.

But so far, the actions have been met with what amounts to little more than a collective shrug. When it comes to Russia, the West remains mostly divided — and no one has stepped up to lead the way to collective action.

There are some signs that may be changing, however, with Germany seemingly poised to lead an effort toward a more effective response to Russia's continuing efforts to undermine security and stability in Europe and beyond.

After Alexander Lukashenko, Europe's last dictator, blatantly stole the Aug. 9 presidential election in Belarus, Putin made clear where he stood. He announced the creation of a special security force that could be deployed at the Belarusian leader's request, sent advisers to help Lukashenko control the opposition, and promised $1 billion in financial support.

So far, Europe and the U.S. have done little more than condemn the flawed elections, express concern about violence and warn Russia not to intervene. But they've not imposed any new sanctions or put forward other measures to put teeth in these demands.

Last month, Russian fighters flew within 100 feet of B-52 bombers flying over the Black and Baltic seas. On the other side of the world, six Russian aircraft flew close to Alaskan airspace, scrambling U.S. fighters to intercept the planes. In Syria, a Russian patrol rammed a U.S. armored vehicle, injuring seven U.S. soldiers.

And even though Moscow was caught red-handed interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the U.S. intelligence community reported last month that Russia is using "a range of measures" to undermine former Vice President Joe Biden's candidacy and support the reelection of President Donald Trump.

While Democrats have predictably condemned Moscow's blatant interference, Trump has dismissed the reports as a "hoax," and some of his top appointees have told intelligence analysts to stop looking for Russian interference and focus on China and Iran instead. Meanwhile, Moscow continues to attack our democratic process.

Russia's latest outrage is the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, Putin's most severe and popular critic. After a comatose Navalny was flown to Germany for medical treatment last month, scientists there determined "beyond all doubt" that he had been poisoned with the chemical nerve agent novichok.

It's possible that the attack on Navalny will backfire. German Chancellor Angela Merkel calls it "attempted murder" and demanded that the Russian government provide an explanation. Berlin has consulted with its EU and NATO allies, and is taking the matter to the organization charged with enforcing the global ban on chemical weapons.

Inside Germany, pressure is rising to take stronger action — including suspending or even canceling Nord Stream 2, the controversial and nearly completed pipeline owned by Russia that will supply gas directly to Germany without having to transit Ukraine or Eastern Europe. 

Merkel should agree to at least suspend construction of the pipeline (though its cancellation would be better). She also should propose to her European and American allies to impose biting sanctions on those responsible for the attempt on Navalny's life. And she should urge President Trump to reverse the announced withdrawal of U.S. troops from Germany — a decision that weakens NATO and is widely seen as a strategic gift to Putin.

It's long past time to stand up to Putin. Moscow's latest escalations only underscore the urgency. Normally, the U.S. president would galvanize the Europeans into action.

Given Trump's long-standing deference to Putin, that's not going to happen. It's now up to Merkel to take the lead.

Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.

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