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How Quickly Will It Be Back to Business As Usual For Relations With Russia?

It’s good to hear that John Kerry is going to Kiev. It’s good to hear that Russia’s G-8 Summit might be canceled and that Russia might be booted out of the G-8 altogether. And good to hear, as Kerry said Sunday, “there could even be, ultimately, asset freezes, visa bans.”

The problem is the words “could be.” They suggest an escape clause—namely that none of this may actually come to pass or, if it does, it will be for only a short period of time and then it will be back to business as normal with Russia.

Certainly Vladimir Putin did not suffer any lasting consequences the last time he violated one of the most basic norms in international law by invading a neighboring state. His 2008 invasion of Georgia, which occurred in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, caused no more than temporary consternation in Washington. Within a few months President Obama took office, promising a “reset” of relations with Russia.

The benefits of this “reset” are hard to find, unless one counts the Russian-orchestrated deal on Syrian chemical weapons which Bashar Assad is not carrying out on the agreed upon schedule. The costs of the “reset” are more obvious–it has convinced Putin that no matter how brazenly and unlawfully and thuggishly he acts, the U.S. will look the other way because semi-amicable relations with Russia are so important to whoever occupies the White House.

It is no coincidence that Putin has now invaded a second neighbor, taking control of Crimea and threatening to do the same with other parts of eastern Ukraine. For the second time Putin has committed armed aggression against a neighboring state. He will do it again in the future–and so too will other predators who are watching carefully what happens in the present instance–unless it is clear there is a real price to be paid for his flagrant misconduct.

Admittedly our options to make Russia pay a price are limited, but they are not nonexistent. John Kerry outlined some steps that can inflict a small but significant cost on the Russian elite–a cost that will grow if Russian financial institutions are banned from the U.S. banking system and if assets controlled by Putin and his cronies in the West are frozen and if their ability to travel in the West is curtailed. All this is within the power of the president of the Untied State to achieve–some of it can be done unilaterally, while other steps will recover winning the support of allies, which is difficult but not impossible.

And the possible American response does not have to be limited to sanctions. There are other steps that can be taken such as rushing military, intelligence, and economic aid to Kiev, and agreeing to station U.S. troops in Eastern European NATO members such as Poland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to make clear that they will never share the fate of Ukraine. Such a step is guaranteed to cause considerable consternation in the Kremlin.

Western European states, which are dependent on Russian natural gas, might fear retaliation from Moscow but there are sharp limits on Russia’s ability to stop selling its gas–it cannot afford the loss of revenue for long. In any case, Russia exercises much less leverage over the US which correspondingly has the ability to take a sterner line with Moscow’s misconduct, provided the president has the willpower for a showdown. That is what we are about to find out in the next few days.

If I had to guess I would say that relations with Russia will be back to “normal” within a year but I hope to be proven wrong, because if my hunch is right, Putin will become even more brazen in the future–and so too will other autocrats.



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