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Look West, Ukraine | Commentary

Russian tanks rolling toward Ukraine, citizens being attacked and buildings burning to the ground. One would think these images came from the days after World War II, but sadly history is repeating itself.

Despite President Vladimir Putin’s deceitful assurances otherwise, tens of thousands of Russian troops remain situated on the Ukraine border, continuing to incite pro-Russia separatist groups that have taken over government buildings in the eastern cities of Ukraine.

Growing up in Ukraine, my mother, who is now 90 years old, saw churches burned and people killed by government agents who had no respect for freedom of religion — or any other basic freedoms for that matter. She understood firsthand how Joseph Stalin suppressed freedom in Ukraine, much as Putin desires to do so now in that very country.

After World War II, my mother met my father, a Hungarian fleeing Communist oppression, in a displaced persons camp in Austria. Together, they had fled their native countries and emigrated to the United States, a country where they could raise me and my three brothers in a setting of peace and stability.

My family’s connection to Ukraine has made what is happening there today all the more upsetting to me. Fear is spreading across the nation of 46 million as it faces its worst crisis in decades. In the east, armed pro-Russia separatists have seized dozens of government buildings and police stations in recent weeks. They are battling those from western and central Ukraine, who seek closer ties with Europe and admission to the European Union. Both sides are suffering deaths as Ukraine slips toward a civil war. Recent weeks have been the deadliest yet, as both sides clashed at the pro-Russia militant stronghold of Slovyansk in the east.

The fact remains that the new government in Ukraine is being threatened by Russian expansion into its sovereign territories, starting in Crimea, as Putin tries to fulfill his life’s dream of restoring the Soviet Union. It is as if the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 — which required signatories Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin, John Major and then-Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine” — never existed. Putin has brazenly violated the commitment made by his predecessor to respect Ukraine’s borders. It is as if the Cold War never ended. And perhaps to Putin, and other Russian nationalists, it never has.

I believe the United States should stop short of providing assistance in the form of American boots on the ground to the deeply divided Ukraine — but giving the country loan guarantees, medical supplies, uniforms and potentially even armaments just isn’t enough.

Our assistance must come in the form of meaningful encouragement, particularly in this piece of advice: Look west, Ukraine. Continue to fight for admission to the EU, and move out of Russia’s economic and political sphere of influence once and for all.

We in turn must support, to the fullest extent possible, the democratic and European aspirations of Ukraine, and we must call on the government in Kiev to bring to justice those responsible for violence against peaceful protesters, but also to drop criminal charges against those detained for exercising their democratic rights.

We should support Ukraine joining NATO. Their joining is faithful to the principle of collective defense: An attack against one member is an attack against all. There is already a NATO-Ukraine Commission, so why not make it official as soon as feasible?

Of course all of this is easier said than done, especially when we in the U.S. suffer the perception of having abdicated our international leadership, and have leaders who even raise questions about American exceptionalism and taking a leading role in world affairs.

I fear that Putin will only continue to thumb his nose at the economic sanctions thus far imposed, which include sanctions against individuals and companies in Putin’s inner circle: energy, financial and mining companies and four banks. Putin is unlikely to find such measures as anything more than a light rap on the knuckles.

Authoritarians like Putin are rarely deterred by limited sanctions. They are deterred when the U.S. projects power and serious resolve. And as long as Putin believes the U.S., the West and NATO are unwilling to fully embrace the Ukraine or vice versa, then Russia will continue to pursue its assault on the country — and potentially be successful in the end. If Putin succeeds, the world will certainly be a more dangerous place.

Rep. Andy Harris, a doctor , represents Maryland’s 1st District.