How do you respond to a blatant land grab by a major power armed with thousands of nuclear weapons and hundreds of thousands of soldiers? This is the question bedeviling Western officials as they try to calibrate a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea. War is out of the question given the risk of massive devastation and ignoring the issue sets too dangerous a precedent. This leaves a middle-ground option comprised of sanctions and diplomatic pressure. This is the correct move to make, as it’s the only plausible option available, but the application of economic and diplomatic pressure must be done in a strategic manner. That’s to say, it’s not enough to selectively apply sanctions to certain things and individuals, or cut off diplomatic relations in select ways. Instead, there must be a cohesive and clearly articulated strategy behind the pressure so that Russia, and any country that aspires to similar actions, knows what the consequences will be. In particular, the sanctions regime must make clear one simple message: actions such as these will result in the swift and brutal isolation of the country from global affairs in all realms not deemed necessary to global security (e.g. mutual arms inspections).
Russian president Vladimir Putin has said the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical disaster” of the 20th century and his actions since entering the Kremlin in 2000 have made clear his intention to restore Russian power and prestige. Specifically, Putin is attempting to revive Russia’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe through his goal of building a Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). While not an exact replica of the old Soviet Empire, the idea behind the EEU is the same: preserve Russian dominance in Eastern Europe while acting as a counterbalance to the West. But it’s more than just a geopolitical game for Putin. His is an ideological struggle as well; he sees Russian culture as a bulwark of traditional values under attack from the corruption of Western liberalism. Ukraine, with its strategic location and strong cultural ties to Russia, was always a key piece in Putin’s grand strategy. It’s no surprise he’s been unwilling to permit Kiev’s drift toward the West. As the old saying famously put it, “Russia without Ukraine is a country, Russia with Ukraine is an empire.”
Given Putin’s reversion to a Soviet mindset and strategy, Washington should follow his lead and fall back on the same strategy that won the Cold War: the diplomatic and economic isolation of Russia coupled with a military strategy of containment. At the moment, Putin is hoping that Western business interests and the desire to avoid a broader conflict in Eastern Europe will cause the United States and the European Union to back down from their threats of punitive action. In other words, Putin is hoping that Russia’s size and strategic importance will allow it to simultaneously remain within the international community of nations while failing to abide by its rules. This is a double standard Washington and Brussels cannot allow to stand.
As Secretary of State John Kerry said on Face the Nation, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text.” Fortunately, the West has the power to back up Kerry’s words. Russia is far more reliant upon Western markets than the West relies upon Russia. Without access to Western capital markets, many Russian companies would collapse. Likewise, the Kremlin receives more than 50% of its budget from energy exports, the majority of which go to Europe. If Washington can help Europe can line up alternative supplies of oil and gas, including through a possible rapprochement with Iran, the potential to cripple Russia’s economy increases significantly.
Of course the damage would be two-sided. Europe in particular would suffer from reduced trade with Russia and higher energy prices. But the question the West must ask itself is, what price does peace, stability, and the prevailing system of international rules and norms carry? The West’s dominance of global affairs comes, in part, from the widespread acceptance of the international system it runs. Failing to adequately punish Russia for its seizure of Crimea would signal that the West lacks the willpower to defend its rules and principles. It would set a dangerous precedent that could be cited by other revisionist powers to justify long-desired plans for aggression.
Furthermore, Europe must realize that this is a test of its desire to be a global power. In the 1990s, the crisis in the Balkans revealed Europe’s inability to manage even its own backyard. A failure to hold Russia accountable would show that nothing has changed in the two decades since, and that despite the expansion of the EU and its large common market, it remains more of an intellectual exercise than an actual tool for projecting power.
In short, the West’s credibility is on the line. Allusions to Germany’s seizure of the Sudetenland in 1938, while extreme, are not completely without merit. The West let Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 pass due in part to the incompetence of the government in Tbilisi and because of the incoming Obama administration’s desire for a reset in relations. This time around there’s no excuse for inaction. Putin’s desire to resurrect the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe is unacceptable and must carry a high cost. We know how to deal with this type of challenge: reactivate the strategy that won us the Cold War. Isolate Russia economically and diplomatically, and contain her militarily. It may be a painful and slow process, but over time Russia will wither like it did the first time around.