President Obama’s decision to levy sanctions on Russia following Vladimir Putin’s aggressive stance towards Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea, was well-received by the media. But economic sanctions have long proved to not be a solution to aggressive militaristic behavior by despotic regimes. The President must do more and do it quickly.
A theory exists that Russia’s dependence on western markets will force them to back down. However, history teaches us that assumptions of this sort have been made before and have generally been off base. From a historical standpoint most economic sanctions fail. The British led League of Nations embargo on Italy following the invasion of Ethiopia did virtually nothing to stop Mussolini’s aggression. International sanctions against Rhodesia and South Africa for racist policies probably played little role in the eventual downfall of those white minority governments and thirty-three years of US led sanctions against Iran did little to cripple the Iranian economy nor the pariah behavior of Teheran’s fundamentalist religious regime until some degree of cooperation from non-western countries was developed just a few years ago. The US economic sanctions/embargo against Cuba stand as the best example of a failed policy to try and impact political behavior by economic means.
The United Nations has proven once again in this dispute that it is an absolutely useless organization with an excessively bloated bureaucracy when it comes to solving larger global political problems. The UN does good work on a number of humanitarian fronts, but when forced to curb Russian or Chinese aggression, or protect the liberal principles of democracy and religious freedom they routinely fail the test.
So what should President Obama do? Diplomatic options that have not yet been exercised are plentiful.
One way to apply pressure on Putin is to give support to domestic dissidents including some less radical Muslim groups who lost much of their support in the west after 9/11. The United States should also force the issue of international recognition of Kosovo and work hard to ensure no further international recognition of the two breakaway regions from Georgia which are under Russian influence. The United States and United Kingdom should lead an effort to expel Russia from the G-8, returning it to G-7 status and also work hard to wean Iran and Syria off of Russian dependency one way or another.
American strength is vital in this matter. Putin does not believe that Western Europe has the will to take any strong action without the involvement of the United States and if President Obama does not step up with more than just rhetoric, he will be proven correct yet again. Russia sees the United States as weakened internationally and vulnerable under President Obama, and even as a Democrat, I find that difficult to argue against based on recent global events.
A school of through has emerged on the far left in the US and UK in recent days that the Crimea election result is legitimate and it is President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron that are not consistent in their principles. Leftists floating this view have cited referendums in Kosovo, South Sudan as well as the upcoming Scottish Independence referendum as justification for their views. However, in each of those cases the election was not held weeks after a military invasion and in none of those cases were the territorial integrity of the nation impacted (in this Ukraine) protected by treaty with the nation which invaded (Russia).
This is an unprecedented action in recent geopolitics. Some on the left have also thrown up the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and subsequent elections in those countries which were being occupied by US troops as some equivalent to the Crimea referendum. Again, this is completely false equivalency based on an assumption that somehow Ukraine’s current government is illegitimate. Make no mistake about it, under the Ukrainian constitution the proper protocols were followed given the circumstances on the ground in Kyiv. The reality that the new Ukrainian government is a right-wing hyper-nationalist group should not impact the views of American policy. Abandoning them would mean the United States was abandoning its own liberal and democratic principles in favor of enabling aggressive Russian military action and the empowerment of the oligarchs that run Putin’s economy.
Putin’s actions internationally are beginning to resemble that of pre World War II Nazi Germany. It can even be argued that Putin with his large nuclear arsenal presents a more immediate threat to the United States in 2014 than Hitler did in 1938. I am not sure I buy this, but the mere fact we can have the discussion speaks volumes all itself.
My colleague Justin Snyder has some strong suggestions that he will share with out readers in the next few days on how the US should further react. We don’t believe going to war directly over Crimea is feasible, desirable or practical. But several non-sanctions related options exist for the President to consider.