A Reluctant Obama Announces Weak Sanctions Against Russia

WASHINGTON – If body language alone were an indicator of resolve and courage, then not much reassurance from President Obama’s latest announcement on selected and still modest sanctions against Russian officials and Russian economic sectors. Obama appeared reluctant and tired, as he announced punitive actions against Russia on account of the unprecedented annexation of a piece of Ukraine.

Rules of the game

But what’s at stake here? The issue here is what is and what is not permissible behavior in the international system. At stake here are the protocols and procedures nations are supposed to follow in the pursuit of their goals. The outrage about Russia’s invasion and then annexation of Crimea, an integral part of Ukraine, is really about Putin’s total disregard for basic principles of international relations, first and foremost the principle of “sanctity of borders”.

Preposterous justifications

As we know, officially Russia declared that it had the right to do everything it did regarding Crimea because the unlawful government in Kiev represents an imminent threat to the welfare of the Russians in Ukraine. Well, we know that this is claim is false and therefore unacceptable.

This being the case, then the annexation of Crimea, even allowing for the fact that most Crimeans are ethnic Russians, is an act of aggression.

What should the West do?

The open question for Europe and the US is what should they do about it. In other words, how important is this Russian violation of basic principles? Based on the rather hesitant and timid responses so far, I would say not very important.

There is surprise, some degree of indignation, but nothing like:

“Russia has forfeited its right to be a welcome partner within the international community. We, the Western countries, will immediately enforce drastic economic sanctions against Russia. We do not care about the harm that they may cause to our own interests. We are confident that the Russians will suffer a great deal more; and this shall teach them a lesson”.

Hesitant Europe

Clearly we are not there. Not even close. The Europeans say they want to do something regarding economic sanctions. But they are already quarreling among themselves about unpleasant “collateral damage” at home. The French have lucrative armament deals with Moscow. London benefits from major Russian investments in high-end real estate and from Russian financial investments in the UK. Cyprus is a preferred venue for Russian foreign banking transactions. Germany is a key technology supplier to Russia. So, the sorry spectacle we are witnessing is the debate among the brave Europeans about who shall be hit first.

America not shining

And America is not shining either. Obama has enough political problems with the (at the very least) imperfect roll-out of his health care reform. The Democratic Party appears weak as the critical November mid-term elections are approaching. The last thing this President wants is a major foreign policy crisis that he is not prepared to face.

Unfortunately, all this confusion, hesitation and obvious reluctance to take a real stand against Russian aggression means only one thing. The West will not react to this unprecedented breach of the post-war international order with forceful resolve. In fact Europe and America (if you read between the lines) are ready to make a deal:“This is really bad behavior, Mr. Putin. But if you just stop this now, and say something nice and conciliatory we shall let this one pass”.

Conciliatory spirit viewed as weakness

Megalomaniac Putin most likely will interpret Western timidity as a sign of profound weakness. And so he will not feel constrained.

He will not push too far, but he will simply ignore modest  sanctions are other pinpricks. Most likely he has already concluded that the West is not comfortable with open-ended tensions with Russia and that therefore Europe in the end will simply accept the new facts on the ground regarding Crimea. And America cannot credibly enforce economic sanctions acting all by itself.

And so, here is the end game: Putin keeps Crimea. Prevarication will not be the new normal in international relations; but it will be implicitly accepted by gun-shy Western leaders as an occasional bump in the road.

So much for “Pax Americana”, “sanctity of borders”, “an international system governed by international law”, and all the rest of it.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *