Obama confronts Putin, finally

U.S. president behind stringent new sanctions

By Dale R. Herspring

Russian President Vladimir Putin has continued to pursue his chosen course of action with regard to Ukraine despite pleas that he exercise restraint and threats from the United States and the European Union.

He claims he is doing everything he can to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Ukraine, while supplying separatists with weapons and equipment. Russians inside their own country have actually fired at Ukrainian forces. That seems close to an act of war.

The White House has been under tremendous pressure to take action against Putin. Given President Barack Obama’s refusal to stand up to Putin on Syria and the Crimea, few observers thought he would do anything meaningful. The key policy question has been whether to impose sanctions.  Russia’s economy is weak, and many believe that sanctions might hurt it enough to get Putin to back down from his nationalistic ambitions.

Sanctions are a complicated and difficult issue. The White House has been right to note that for sanctions to be effective, our European allies must be with us. Yet they fear taking serious steps against Moscow for their own economic reasons.  Germany, for example, gets 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia and doesn’t want to lose its supplier. European voters have not been as concerned about the crisis in Ukraine as Americans have, so few thought the Europeans would take more than symbolic actions.  We were wrong. Major new sanctions were announced on July 29.

The United States and EU saw the downing of Malaysian flight MH17 as a chance for Putin to distance himself from pro-Russian separatists in East Ukraine and get Russia out of this ethnic conflict.  But that has not been the case.

Indeed, one could argue that Putin’s rhetoric — and silence — have contributed to the problem. He appears to have painted himself in a corner. Instead of the hand of diplomacy, Putin has shown the West a silent fist. It is worth noting that his willingness to stand up to the West on Ukraine and the downed airliner has led to his approval rating in Russia approaching 80 percent. Russians, who have suffered setback after setback since the collapse of the Soviet Union, are overjoyed to have a leader stand up to Western pressure.

As for the new sanctions, most important is the ban on Europeans purchase of new bonds or shares issued by banks that are at least half owned by the Russian government. Russia’s state banks have already begun to look for alternative financing, but the reality is that there may not be an alternative.

The Europeans agreed to sanctions for multiple reasons. Obama’s persuasiveness should not be underestimated. He was relentless in phone calls to European leaders. Also, European outrage that investigators were blocked from the airliner’s crash site and the fact that Russians in their own country have been firing on Ukraine changed the equation.  

In response, the Kremlin has warned that the sanctions will raise the cost of energy in Europe. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said, “This is a thoughtless and irresponsible step. It will inevitably lead to an increase in prices on the European market.”

Putin’s bottom line is unclear. Does he think Obama and the EU will push further? Will he cut energy supplies to the Euro-peans? Doing so would hurt Russia, but it would also turn the European economy — and possibly its domestic politics — upside down.

Similarly, what will Obama do and Europe do? Obama has pushed further than many believed he would. Is he prepared to supply Ukraine with the military equipment and weapons it needs? How unified is Europe in maintaining or strengthening the sanctions? Most observers think Putin believes he can wait them out.

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