The limits of bluster

Just because Putin is acting like the leader of a rogue state, his country cannot be considered as such. Russia boasts the world’s eighth-largest economy. The Obama administration needs to preach what it will ultimately practise.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Reuters) Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Reuters)
Updated: March 28, 2014 9:18 am

Isolating Russia, like Iran or North Korea, is not a threat the US can make good on.

THE United States has once again twisted itself into a rhetorical pretzel. As when it threatened military action against Syria if a “red line” was crossed, the Obama administration’s rhetoric about Russia and Ukraine goes far beyond what it will be willing and able to enforce. Earlier this month, President Obama warned that America would “isolate Russia” if it grabbed more land, and [Wednesday], he suggested that more sanctions were possible.

Likewise, Secretary of State John Kerry said the Group of 7 nations were “prepared to go to the hilt” in order to isolate Russia. But Washington’s rhetoric is dangerously excessive, for three main reasons: Ukraine is far more important to Vladimir V. Putin than it is to America; it will be hard for the United States and Europe to make good on their threats of crippling sanctions; and other countries could ultimately defang them.
First, the US needs to see the Ukraine crisis from Russia’s viewpoint. Threats from America and Europe will never be the determining factor in Putin’s decision-making. Ukraine is Russia’s single biggest national security issue beyond its borders, and Putin’s policy, including whether to seize more of Ukraine, will be informed overwhelmingly by national security interests, not near-term economics. Furthermore, Russia has provided Ukraine with some $200-$300 billion in natural gas subsidies since 1991. With an anti-Russian government in Ukraine, Moscow is likely to stop these subsidies, lifting a major economic burden just as the West tries to squeeze it financially.

Second, if Russia pushes farther into Ukraine, America’s attempt at tougher Iran-style sanctions, coordinated with allies, will ultimately fail. Indeed, if Putin pursues a broader military campaign, a similarly robust response from both America and Europe is unlikely.

Russia’s energy exports, its commercial power and its sheer size make the costs of ignoring it prohibitively high for Europe. Despite the Group of 7’s recent exclusion of Russia, the Europeans don’t want to go to extremes.

And finally, even if America seeks stringent sanctions against Russia, other nations will ignore them and offset any damage they cause. India absolutely refuses to treat Russia like a rogue state. More important, China will not observe such sanctions. The fundamental problem is that the Obama administration doesn’t want to bear the costs associated with an active foreign policy. That’s understandable. A December Pew poll revealed the lowest level of public support for an active American foreign policy since 1964.

This domestic pressure was on display in Syria. Obama’s error was not that he backed away from military action and accepted Russia’s proposal to rid Syria of chemical weapons. The mistake was that he drew a red line that would have been more costly to back up than the US was willing to tolerate. America lost credibility internationally for failing to make good on its threat.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is …continued »

First Published on: March 28, 2014 12:46 amSingle Page Format
Do you like this story
  Previous Story
Classics Revisited
Next Story  
The name’s Ruth