economist - Mar 8th 2014
The West can punish Putin’s Russia for its belligerence in Ukraine. But only if it is prepared to pay a price.
AS YOU read this, 46m people are being held hostage in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has pulled Russian troops back from the country’s eastern border. But he has also demanded that the West keep out and that the new government in Kiev should once again look towards Russia. Don’t be alarmed, he says with unambiguous menace, invasion is a last resort.
Some in the West will argue that the starting point for policy is to recognise reality, however unpalatable. Let Mr Putin keep the Crimean peninsula, which he occupied just over a week ago. It has a Russian-speaking majority and was anyway part of Russia until 1954. As for Ukraine as a whole, Russia is bound to dominate it, because it cares more about the country than the West does. America and the European Union must of course protest, but they would do well to avoid a useless confrontation that would harm their own economies, threaten their energy supplies and might plunge Ukraine into war. Mr Putin has offered a way out and the West should grasp it.
That thinking is mistaken. In the past week Mr Putin has trampled over norms that buttress the international order and he has established dangerous precedents that go far beyond Ukraine (see article). Giving in to kidnappers is always dangerous: those who fail to take a stand to start with often face graver trials later on.
In another world
The Ukrainian citizens who protested in Maidan did not drive out a home-grown autocrat only to become beholden to the one next door; many of the youths on the streets of Donetsk and Kharkiv, in the Russian-speaking east, are as eager to belong to a sovereign Ukraine as are their compatriots in Kiev and Lviv. They know that under Russia’s sway Ukraine would be weak and dependent. They look westward to Europe, which offers their country its best hope of overcoming chronic corruption and bolstering the economy.
Crimea seems inclined to turn eastward instead; and if its people voted for an orderly secession, it might well get the backing of the outside world. But the referendum that has been announced for March 16th is being held at the point of a Kalashnikov. Moreover, the justification Mr Putin claims for sending in troops is not Crimea’s unique history, but the principle that the Kremlin has a duty to protect Russians and Russian-speakers wherever they may be—the logic that Hitler used when he seized parts of Europe in the 1930s. If the West implicitly accepts this line, Mr Putin will have a pretext for intervening to protect Russians scattered across the former Soviet Union, from Central Asia to the Baltic.
Many powers, not least Britain, France and the United States, have sometimes broken international law. But Mr Putin has emptied the law of significance, by warping reality to mean whatever he chooses. He has argued that fascists threaten the safety of Russian-speakers in Ukraine; that the elite troops surrounding Ukrainian bases are not Russian, but irregulars who bought their uniforms in the shops; that the Budapest memorandum, which Russia signed in 1994 and guarantees Ukraine’s borders, is no longer valid because the government in Kiev has been overthrown. Such preposterous claims are not meant to be taken at face value. Instead they communicate a truth that ordinary Russians understand only too well: the law is there not to restrain power, but to serve it. Unchallenged, this is a licence for Russian aggression.
So do not bet on Mr Putin being content to stop at Ukraine. In 2008 he fought Georgia to assert control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He has said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the 20th century’s greatest geopolitical catastrophe. He is armed with a self-proclaimed mission to rebuild the Russian empire and now with a pretext to intervene abroad. Unconstrained by law or the fear that the West will stand up to him, Mr Putin would pose a grave threat to his neighbours.
You say Kiev, I say Kyiv
The West is not about to go to war over Ukraine, nor should it. Not enough of its interests are at stake to risk a nuclear conflict. But the occupation of Crimea must be punished, and Mr Putin must be discouraged from invading anywhere else.
Mr Putin expects a slap on the wrist. Sanctions must exceed his expectations. Shunning the G8 summit, which he is due to host in June, is not enough. It is time to impose visa bans and asset freezes on regime-connected Russians (the craven parliamentarians who rubber-stamped their army’s deployment should be among the first batch); to stop arms sales and cut Kremlin-friendly financial firms from the global financial system; to prepare for an embargo on Russian oil and gas, in case Ukrainian troops are slaughtered in Crimea or Russia invades eastern Ukraine. And the West should strengthen its ability to resist the Kremlin’s revanchism: Europe should reduce its dependence on Russian gas (see article); America should bin restrictions on energy exports; NATO should be invigorated.
Ukraine needs aid, not only because it is bankrupt, but also because Russia can gravely harm its economy and will want to undermine any independent-minded government. America and the EU have found some billions in emergency funds, but Ukraine also needs the prospect, however distant, of EU membership and a big IMF package along with the technical assistance to meet its conditions. A vital start is a monitored election to replace today’s interim government and the parliament, which is for sale to the highest bidder.
As things stand, mindful of their fragile economies, and with the Kremlin hinting at revenge against sanctions, many Europeans worry about the cost of all this (see article). But Mr Putin will gauge whether the West is resolute about its eastern borders partly by the price it is prepared to pay. Others argue that the West needs Russia to help deal with Syria and Iran’s nuclear programme. But Russia is fuelling the war in Syria, and it has just torn up the deal that promised Ukraine security after it surrendered its nuclear weapons—a terrible precedent. For too long Western leaders have hoped that their countries’ economic ties with Russia could be impervious to the Kremlin’s belligerence. This week Mr Putin proved them wrong.