The power of sanctions against Putin on Ukraine

March 3, 2014

In a crisis moving extremely fast, it is dangerous to say this, but I’m at least somewhat less concerned about this upheaval in Ukraine than other people seem to be, for a couple of reasons.

One, to be blunt, is that Ukraine is not in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The United States is not militarily obliged to come to the defense of a country that is, in some degree, in peril. For Americans, that is some solace — for we have had more than enough of war in recent years. (I am, for similar reasons, against inviting Ukraine into NATO in the future — unless the basic character of the alliance changes and even Russia could be a part — which would clearly require some change in Russia as well.)

We do, of course, owe Ukrainians assistance. Not just for their 1990s decision to give up the nuclear weapons they inherited from the Soviet Union, but for their contributions to the war in Iraq and their commitment to democracy and to peaceful relations among states. So I am hardly suggesting that we ignore the high stakes here, or the Ukrainian people’s legitimate desires for self-determination and economic progress.

The main reason for my relative lack of anxiety derives from the fundamentals of the situation in Ukraine. It is serious, to be sure. But it does not look likely to become catastrophic.

As coercive as Russian President Vladimir Putin has been in this crisis, there have been limits. He hasn’t killed people (so far at least, as of this writing on Monday, March 3). He is apparently trying to make a show of force in a way that gets a specific task done. He wants to protect his military bases in Crimea, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet (historically one of Russia’s big four) is based.

He also wants to assert certain prerogatives in a former Soviet republic. He wants, he says, to protect fellow ethnic Russians and Russian speakers — of whom there are many in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

There is nothing to admire about how Putin has proceeded. His approach is indeed 19th century-ish, as Secretary of State John Kerry said on Face the Nation Sunday. But it’s not totally surprising for the way great powers behave. Even in this century.

For example, the main distinction to draw between what Putin has just done in Crimea and what Washington did in Panama in 1989 — when a dictatorial government started to mistreat its own people badly and jeopardize our bases and access to the Panama Canal — is that we were more patient, and more justified, in making the decision to invade. In fact, we went further in that crisis than Putin is likely to do here.

But Putin saw a government in Ukraine that he believed illegitimate. From a certain perspective, it had violated the February 21 deal that would have led to early elections, almost as soon as it was reached. He also saw the Ukrainian parliament last week look to degrade the status of the Russian language within Ukraine — an understandable reaction by angry Ukrainians at one level, to be sure, but also a provocation and a pointless one.

I am hardly defending Putin. But I doubt very much that he is seeking to forcibly annex part of Ukraine. Part of his worldview may desire that, to be sure. But we have a pretty strong set of potential economic sanctions and Putin knows it.

The West has gotten a lot better at applying sanctions — largely because of the Iran experience, and also our dealings with North Korea, and before that Serbia. The international community now knows how to do this — how to go after the banking sector, the individual wealth of top Russian leaders, their visa travel rights, and so on.

We can try to help Europe gain new sources of energy as well, a point Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute wisely made when we appeared together Sunday on Face the Nation. Russia cannot thrive if the Western world collectively seeks to punish Putin and to do so for a considerable period.

Were the current crisis to escalate to a bad situation — which it hasn’t yet — and Ukraine to face civil warfare and an invasion by Russia to back up one side, then I think these kinds of tools would be applied. They’d be effective and Putin knows it.

So I’m relatively confident he won’t take this gamble, provided we are clear in our communications about how we would respond.

That said, the West’s policy now needs to focus on making sure he doesn’t invade. He should be asked to declare no plans for forcible annexation of any part of Ukraine — or any longer military stay in any part of Ukraine than absolutely necessary. He should allow international monitors and mediators to help verify the protection of various populations within Ukraine — a plan he reportedly discussed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday. He should also work toward a new deal with the Ukrainian government that will be respected by all. The Ukrainian government also needs to continue to show that it is seeking to include and represent Ukrainians of all major parts of the country and society.

Moscow must restore Ukraine’s full sovereignty in short order — while ensuring protection for Russian speakers as noted above. Putin should continue to have his military units in Crimea refrain from the use of force, and also to stop trying to recruit defectors from the Ukrainian army into their general ranks. No further Russian troop mobilizations or large-scale additional reinforcements of Russian positions in Ukraine should occur.

Chances are high that this crisis can still be contained and ultimately defused. We need to distinguish between the unpleasant things that have already happened and the catastrophic possibilities that, with good policy and clear warnings as well as inducements to all relevant parties, we can probably still prevent.

PHOTOS: People gather outside an European Union emergency foreign ministers meeting to protest against Russian troops in Ukraine, in Brussels March 3, 2014. REUTERS/Yves Herman

A vendor counts Russian rouble banknotes at a market in Moscow, March 3, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov 

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The power of sanctions won’t work on Russia because Russia is not Iran. It has veto at the U.N. Security Council, and it has plenty of resources, plus open markets across Asia and China and Latin America with states that are anti-American.

Describing Putin as coercive would certainty pleases anti-Russian readers, but he is the type of leader Russia needs now – not another drunkard like Boris Yeltsin.

Then, there is another aspect that make any sanctions by the West foolish. With China becoming more coercive in the Pacific (the “coercive” fits nicely here), the last thing the U.S. wants is to alienate Russia.

All the West barking and threats against Russia now are designed to help the protester’s interim government in Kiev survive – and hopefully win the upcoming elections.
In case they don’t win, or they win with a slim margin,
the U.S. would have to deal with a pro-Western regime in Kiev with a shaky mandate that in the end may backfire!
Ukrainians are split now, and bellicosity or threats won’t calm their nerves and help them make a right decision at the polls. It is time to cool all that hot rhetoric down and let the elections result speak. Nikos Retsos, retired professor

Posted by Nikos_Retsos | Report as abusive

“That said, the West’s policy now needs to focus on making sure he doesn’t invade. He should be asked to declare no plans for forcible annexation of any part of Ukraine — or any longer military stay in any part of Ukraine than absolutely necessary.”

I guess that’s the problem, Putin isn’t calling it “annexation”. And as or “no longer than absolutely necessary”, well obviously Putin has a very different idea than we do of what is “absolutely necessary”, or else his troops wouldn’t be in Crimea right now.

Posted by delta5297 | Report as abusive

All I can see is similarities between Nazi Germany actions and russia today.The same thing happened then ,and Western nations were naive and did nothing when Hitler annexed part of his neighbors countries.I think Europeans are so naive and cannot believe the worst,Chamberlain remember someone? Because Europe is dependent on Russian gas then russians are allowed to bully their neighbors? It’s frustrating and I believe a swift harsh actions would teach every aggressor a lesson.

Posted by CristianMP | Report as abusive

Sanctions against Russia!!!!!!

Go right ahead……

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

this is “Kiev Rus.”
these people stood against the Mongols.

this is already war.

Posted by lkofenglish | Report as abusive

I thought this was a very measured piece. Only one thing to add. Watch the price of oil.

Posted by nickir | Report as abusive

Glad to know, there are still sensible persons around.

Posted by Newageeconomics | Report as abusive

One of the big faults with the reporting on the crisis in the Ukraine has been the lack of details. We know that the Ukrainian president left the country and that the Ukrainian announced it had certain 2010 amendments to the Ukrainian constitution, thus returning the Ukraine to a 2004 constitution that most native speakers of English probably know nothing about. The pro-change faction says that the president effectively abdicated by fleeing the country, and the anti-change faction says that he is the legitimate president and requested intervention by Russia.

Even though I don’t know anything about the Ukrainian constitution, I would be surprised if it allows the parliament, acting on its own accord, to make major changes which take effect immediately. Similarly, I would be surprised if there is a basis for declaring the president to have abdicated because he left Kiev. (However, as a practical matter, volunteering himself as a Babylonian captive on Moscow probably does amount to abdication.) One version of the story said he was impeached, but there have been no details about what impeachment requires under the Ukrainian constitution (“high crimes and misdemeanors” as in the U.S., or a simple vote of “no confidence” as in the U.K.?).

At the same time, I would be surprised if any version of the Ukrainian constitution ever gave the country’s president (or anyone else) the power to invite in foreign troops to settle his dispute with the Ukrainian parliament in what is really a domestic Ukrainian political crisis.

Thus, the journalism profession has not been very helpful to those of us unfamiliar with Ukrainian government or politics.

Nevertheless, it is reasonably clear that the Ukraine is in a crisis that resembles the crisis of Egypt or Libya, except that the people have managed — for the time being, at least — to avoid the anarchy and lawlessness that those two countries experienced.

At least in a technical legal sense, there may not be a legitimate government in the Ukraine, inasmuch as the 2010 amendments to the 2004 constitution may not have been legitimately rescinded, inasmuch as the Ukrainian president’s removal from office may not be technically legal (although his flight to Moscow in a domestic political standoff with the Ukrainian parliament may constitute abdication), and inasmuch as the Ukrainian president probably did not have authority to act without the cooperation of the Ukrainian parliament to invite a foreign government to move troops into the country to back up the president’s side in his dispute with the parliament.

As for Putin, we now know that he’s not smart, because he could have gotten more by doing less.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

The Ukrainian government explicitly gives the Verkhovna Rada that very power. There is a Constitutional Majority concept that requires 2/3 of votes to impeach. There was such a majority at the time. Besides, Yanukovich fled.

This was a throughly constitutional regime change ushering real democracy. That is what so terrifies the Kremlin.

Posted by dzhentlman | Report as abusive

It’s hard to assess this situation without reflecting on some of the key fundamental issues. I raise this because i would assume, as we all know that Russia is a key Ally to Ukraine just as America is to Israel. Question is, if Israel was in a similar situation, would America take the same measures such as the one’s Russia has made to Crimea. One would arguably say yes or no depending on your perspective.

I think America would in my opinion because they have vowed to protect Israel no matter what. Fundamentally speaking the steps i think Russia is taking is fundamentally the same. It would vow to protect Ukraine, having in mind the history of this two countries, there are ties that are hard to break even if the west makes progress in the conflict resolutions.

Reality is , yes a section of the country did not like the former president, but the percentage they represent is really unknown compared to the cities were in favor.Possibly seeing a similarity with past Kenyan election,where the results were very close and it was best to form a coalition government. I think the proposal put forward by the first agreement had grounds to either establish coalition possibilities, or a true winner which would have been democratic and fair.

The sanctions imposed one would say are wrongly timed. We all know the crucial role Russia plays in the international scene . I n true perspective we should acknowledge that the world should embrace the indifference of the west and east , because they enable the world to sphere ahead and fine- tune democracy. It’s high time the west embrace the culture of different countries and not force them to conform to there’s .

Can we imagine any country that will dare to put international sanctions on Western countries? We all know the results of that. By observation Uk and USA have been vocal about the situation, compared to countries such as Germany and France, and it’s not to say they are not in anyway playing a key role, but there approach portrays a more appealing diplomatic resolution. Yes we do need America though maybe they need to initiate other leaders to steer head such issues.

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