So, it seems to work like this: Russia annexes the Crimea, the West imposes targeted economic sanctions on high-ranking Russians. By the way, the sanctions leave out Putin himself, the architect of the annexation, presumably on the basis targeting him would be too confrontational. If Russia encroaches on Eastern Ukraine, then broader economic sanctions will be imposed, we are told. And if Russia were to invade Poland or the Baltics – what then..?
This might seem fanciful. I think Putin’s not so obtuse as to invade Poland, and probably not the Baltics, with their large Russian minorities. But nothing’s impossible – don’t forget Putin’s self-confessed greatest regret is the fall of the Soviet Union – and it does beg the question what would happen. An imponderable, maybe. But short of that, we see the limits of both sides’ options.
Essentially, the West can’t frustrate Russian designs on the Crimea and even parts of Ukraine itself, and equally, it’d be highly risky for Russia to attack a NATO member. But in terms of the current crisis – which is about Ukraine – that gives Russia the upper hand, which Putin is exploiting to the full.
Sanctions are proving of limited effect. Russia’s latter-day rehabilitation in the international community has, ironically, strengthened its hand when it comes to confrontation with the West: significant Western investment in Russia, and in particular, dependency on Russian oil and gas, means sanctions would hurt the West materially, as well as Russia.
I don’t blame Western leaders for being cautious. Clearly, they shouldn’t go overboard with sanctions in these relatively early stages of the crisis, let alone take military action. But I do think they should be more robust in other ways. For example, why on earth didn’t the West boycott the Sochi Paralympics, which took place a stone’s throw from the Crimea as Russia was invading it!? Why don’t they remove the 2018 soccer World Cup from Russia?
Seems to me the West needs to show more imagination and strength when it comes to Ukraine, learning from its very recent mistakes. For example, have you noticed that it’s only now, post Russian annexation of the Crimea, that the West has rushed to sign an Accession Agreement with Ukraine, and is offering it financial support?
One positive thing I’ll say about Putin: he’s an expert in realpolitik. Maybe it’s time for the West to meet fire with fire.