Published: March 7, 2014 (Issue # 1800)
As pressure on U.S. President Barack Obama to “do something to punish Russia” over Ukraine mounts, the U.S. has turned to a couple of measures in their foreign policy toolkit, such as threatening President Vladimir Putin with sanctions and expulsion from the Group of Eight. U.S. Senator John McCain even repeated the line he used during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, saying, “We are all Ukrainians now.”
How will Putin react to these threats?
Most likely, Putin will simply ignore the West. First of all, preventing Ukraine from turning decisively West is an existential issue for Putin and the Russian establishment. U.S. policymakers and commentators have missed this fact from the very beginning of the Ukrainian crisis last November. While the U.S. national interests in Ukraine are tangential, Russia’s certainly are not. Although the ruble and the Russian stock markets are down, Putin, it would seem, is prepared to incur substantial economic and political pain if necessary before he caves to the Western position on Ukraine.
Second, it looks increasingly likely that Washington’s European allies, especially Germany, are not prepared to go along with the U.S. position on sanctioning Russia. U.S. trade and investment in Russia is minimal anyway, so why would we expect Putin to give U.S. threats a second thought going forward?
Third, the threat of punishments will only make a dangerous situation even worse by needlessly antagonizing Russia with no upside. For the West to threaten the Kremlin will only back Putin into a corner domestically. Putin’s political strength both within the Russian establishment and among common Russians is heavily predicated on his ability to demonstrate that Russia is a great power. Caving in to U.S. threats would be tantamount to political suicide.
Imagine if the tables were turned, and Russia, along with its allies, had threatened the U.S. with sanctions after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Former President George W. Bush would have simply ignored the threats, of course.