Crimea Political Score Card: Putin Wins, America Loses

WASHINGTON – President Obama and the European leaders will meet very soon in Europe, in The Hague, for a summit on nuclear issues. Of course, there will be discussions on what else should the Western powers do about Russia’s annexation of Crimea. I am not sure that they really have or will have a convincing strategy.

Limited sanctions

So far, the approach has been to hit Russia with limited, incremental economic sanctions. The idea at the basis of this “step by step” approach to sanctions is to “signal” to Putin (Americans love signals) that we are ready to do a lot more, should the Russians make additional moves in Eastern Ukraine or something like that.

Crimea is enough

OK, let’s stipulate that Putin will not do anything else, at least for the time being. He will not threaten Ukraine. He will not make noises about the need to protect endangered Russians elsewhere in Eastern Europe. But he still keeps Crimea, now firmly reincorporated into the Russian Federation.

Accept the land grab?

This being the case, what is the West going to do? Are we going to tacitly acquiesce, muttering that, as long as Putin will not do additional harm, then we are prepared, (if reluctantly), to accept the “facts on the ground“? Is the message, direct or indirect, that  all is well? Is the West ready to let Putin get away with this flagrant violation of key international law principles regarding the sanctity of borders and the duty for all states to resolve disputes peacefully?

Uphold principles?

This is really tricky.

What is at stake here is how far America and Europe are willing to go in order to uphold international law.

Otherwise, from a strictly “realpolitik” standpoint, this crisis is no big deal. Let’s face it, from a geo-political perspective, Russia’s  annexation of Crimea changes practically nothing in Europe. On account of their pre-existing bilateral deal with Ukraine, the Russians already had a large naval base in Crimea before the annexation, and now they get to keep it.

Sure enough, this loss of territory is a major trauma that hurts Ukraine. But, quite frankly, (and without any cynicism), economically devastated Ukraine has bigger problems to deal with now than the loss of its southern appendix.

By the same token, Germany’s security is not directly affected by who controls Crimea. Same for the United States or Canada.

Punish the rules breaker

The problem here is what should be done to a major country, until yesterday deemed to be a member in reasonable good standing of the G 8 club, who openly broke basic rules. 

By grabbing Crimea, Putin has shown that he will invoke international law principles only when convenient. (Think about Russia’s position on Syria, including its duty to supply heavy weapons to the Assad “legitimate” government).

Regarding Crimea Putin adopted a –shall we say– “expansive” interpretation of humanitarian intervention. He made up an imminent threat to the Russians in Crimea, he invaded the territory in order to protect them, (without openly admitting this), and then he forced a secession.

We know all this. We also know that there is no chance that he will give this “conquest” up.

This being the case, then what are the Western countries going to do? The opportunity to offer Putin a face-saving way out existed only in the minds of wishful thinking Western leaders.

Putin was not and is not interested in getting out of the mess he created. Somehow, he is convinced he can and will ride this out. He is convinced that the West is weak and that therefore he will be able to get away with his rule-breaking behavior.

Permanent sanctions…

So, the ball is the West’s court. Even assuming no additional Russian territorial and/or other claims aimed at redesigning the post-Soviet Union map of Europe, the annexation of Crimea –by itself a major violation of international law– will stand.

If the West really meant business, this would mean that Russia should endure much tougher –and permanent– economic sanctions. In other words, Russia should pay a heavy price, as long as it is in open violation of basic international law principles.

…or accommodation?

This is what should happen. But I doubt it. Precisely because the annexation of Crimea (assuming no additional Russian hostile moves elsewhere) does not constitute a direct threat against Western Europe, you can rest assured that someone will come up with a clever way of explaining it away. Crimea will become something we politely agree to disagree about with Moscow. The desire to go back to business as usual is palpable.

Of course, should Putin continue with additional demands in Eastern Ukraine and may be elsewhere, then the picture changes.

But if Crimea is the only land grab, I fully expect that Russia will get away with it, with only modest political and economic damage.

Disarmed Europe deters nobody

As for Europe, par for the course. A virtually disarmed and obsessively peace-loving Europe does not want to get into any conflict, while it does not deter anybody. (It did not deter Slobodan Milosevic, and it did not even scare Gaddafi. Both in Serbia and Libya Europe had to rely on vastly superior American air power and air support to win these minor conflicts. In Libya it took a painfully long time for France and the UK to defeat a third-rate army because America’s participation in the air campaign was reduced).

If you think that Russia’s sabre rattling will convince the Europeans that it is time to spend more on defense in order to reconstitute their military capabilities, think again.

As I said, Crimea will soon be explained away as an improperly handled, somewhat crude action, which however stems from the understandable Russian desire to welcome its people back into the Motherland. “They are all Russians, and they want to be part of the same country. What’s the harm?”

America loses credibility and prestige

The real, lasting damage will be to America’s prestige and credibility as the key guarantor of international security. Sadly, a now inward looking American public does not seem to care that much about “prestige“and “international law“, let alone the preservation of a “rules-based international political system” now endangered by a rogue nation that acts as it pleases.

Real statesmen, of course, should care. But where are they?


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