Faced with the most direct military aggression in Europe since the days of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the Obama administration and our European allies have been treating Russia so far with kid gloves.
We have been afraid of imposing economic sanctions on Russia or providing military equipment to Ukraine for fear of an escalation from Moscow which could take the form of invading eastern Ukraine, seizing the property of Western companies (including Ford and Boeing) in Russia, cutting off western Europe and Ukraine from Russian natural gas, or even selling advanced air-defense systems to Iran.
So what has the Western policy of restraint gotten us so far? Nothing, as far as I can tell. Crimea is preparing to vote this Sunday on an illegal referendum under the guns of Russian occupiers which will result in a predetermined endorsement of Anschluss with Russia. Meanwhile Russian troops are massing for maneuvers on Ukraine’s border, raising fears that Vladimir Putin is planning to annex more of that unfortunate country which most Russians regard as part of their empire. Oh and to stamp out the last vestiges of domestic criticism, Putin has just blocked the websites used by his critics Garry Kasparov and Alexei Navalny.
Only those who are unfamiliar with history can be surprised by Putin’s actions. Autocrats like him habitually keep pushing further and further as long as they sense weakness on the other side–and Putin obviously senses that today since he, like Bashar Assad, is able to violate our red lines with impunity. First we told him not to invade Georgia and he did. Then we told him to abide by a ceasefire and he did not; far from pulling his troops back, Putin has maintained effective control of significant chunks of Georgian territory. More recently we told him not to invade Crimea and he did. We told him not to annex Crimea and he seems to be in the process of doing just that.
It is well past time for the West to respond with serious sanctions that will inflict real damage on the Russian economy. For a start, block Russian financial institutions from access to dollar-denominated trades. Freeze the assets, held in the West, of so many of Putin’s oligarch pals. And block those same oligarchs from visiting their properties and families in the West. Already the Russian stock market is down more than 20 percent this year; that could be only the beginning of a free fall that will slice billions of dollars out of the value of Russian companies, most of them (given the nature of the crony capitalism in Russia) closely linked to the Kremlin.
None of that is likely to make Putin disgorge Crimea, which he sees as Russia’s historic territory, and unfortunately it will also inflict some pain on Western economies. But at least it will make him think twice about going any further. At the moment, the tyrant in the Kremlin no doubt feels like he has a green light for further aggression.