Russian President Vladimir Putin has done what he was warned against — incorporating Crimea into Russia. This land grab occurred with barely more than a “Trudeau salute” to chattering, dithering, fulminating critics in Kiev, the EU, NATO, UN, and Washington. Crimea is now as Russian as Moscow; this egg will not be unscrambled.
The best way to punish Putin is to strengthen Ukraine politically, economically, and militarily.
The Measure of the Man. In assessing Russian President Vladimir Putin, one needs examine some baselines. He was not a career politician, businessman, or military officer, but rather a senior KGB intelligence/control bureaucrat. He was never a reformer in the Gorbachev-Yeltsin camp. He has described the collapse of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.” Consequently, his objective is to restore as much as possible the pre-1991 Soviet empire.
And, at age 61, Putin can play a “long game.” He need not move immediately; rather he can wait until time mutes Western fulminations. That is, unless he senses Western disarray is such that further direct action like incorporating eastern Ukraine, would not prompt military response. NATO failure to provide military assistance to Ukraine re-validates Putin’s judgment of Western weakness — as does Ukrainian failure to defend its Crimea bases or scuttle its ships.
In some respects, the Putin parallel would be if former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had become president. Hoover was an American patriot; he broke up World War II Nazi operations and neutralized communist operations during the Cold War. He had, however, limited tolerance for nontraditional “free speech,” use of mind-altering substances, and homosexual behavior.
Putin has the same mindset — and with no democratic restraints.
Huffing and Puffing. To date, however, Western reactions are trivial. Immediately, Washington and the European Union announced sanctions: freezing bank accounts and denying visas for a handful of senior Russian and Crimean leaders. Risible. Battered by feathers and pounded by marshmellows, the afflicted Russians professed vast amusement. Who would have been stupid enough to leave funds in U.S.-European banks when, for example, the Cayman Islands are far more secure and discreet? And one can be sure they can vacation in Crimea should they desire to travel.
Then more Russians were denied the opportunity to visit the West and some financial institutions were restricted. Bombarded with cream puffs.
And now no more G8 meeting (or rather declining to hold the scheduled G8 session in Sochi but rather have a G7 pity party). Somehow one doubts Moscow will panic over G8 exclusion since, with the Olympics concluded, Sochi is irrelevant, and the G-20 has the action.
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Escalation Doesn’t Work — Nor Do Economic Sanctions. One assumes that these sequences of “sanctions” were debated by various foreign policy experts regarding which second-echelon officials and which banking establishments to restrict without really hurting Russia. We are sending a message that more is coming.
Unfortunately, trivial sanctions don’t send meaningful messages. They discomfit a handful, but essentially tell Russian leadership we don’t dare do something significantly damaging while simultaneously giving those affected the chance to adjust to restrictions actually imposed. The media abounds with accounts of Western business and financial interests potentially injured if they cannot sell to Russia. One is reminded of the Marxist observation that capitalists would sell revolutionaries the rope with which to hang them.
Nevertheless, the cold reality is that Russia can considerably inconvenience U.S. government interests. Moscow could, for example:
Cut gas supplies to Western Europe and/or increase prices. Such action, however, is a two-edged sword as Russia would then not get sales revenue;
Effectively prevent U.S. government withdrawal of heavy equipment from Afghanistan. Movement of this equipment has quietly used central Asian routes when transit through Pakistan became subject to Taliban attack;
Stop transporting U.S. astronauts to the Space Station. It has been an embarrassing reality that we no longer have the capacity to lift personnel into orbit.
So we are rather quickly into a calculus of how much pain we can inflict versus how much pain we can endure. One fears that while Russians have enjoyed post-Cold War economic progress, they have higher pain tolerance than the West.
A more effective answer is to strengthen Ukraine. The country has great potential but needs strong economic and political support. We should urge Kiev to resist “federalization” which would lead to Russian de facto conquest piecemeal. And, yes, military support as well. The Russian military is not the 1988 Soviet Red Army; its numbers are substantial, but they must defend the entire country. Ukranian forces with Western assistance, including a fast-track to NATO membership, could be a defining deterrent.
David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as advisor for two Army Chiefs of Staff. He has just published Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.