Facing up to Russian bullying

Mon, Mar 3, 2014, 20:08

One for the pub quiz. Which state has done most in recent years at the UN Security Council to make the case for the inviolability of sovereign states’ territories, and in banging the drum against foreign meddling in “internal” affairs? Notably over Syria, Iran, Iraq . . . No prizes for guessing that it’s the state which has just taken over the Crimea and is threatening eastern Ukraine. The state which in the last 60 years in different guises invaded Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Georgia – Russia, ”son of” the Soviet Union, under President Vladimir Putin, admirer of Stalin.

So far, no bloodshed, largely because of restraint shown by Ukraine’s new government, but there is a real danger of lethal clashes either with the Ukrainian army or civilian militants, particularly if Putin sends troops in to the east of the country. Russia’s blatant violation of international law, justified by concocted claims its citizens are threatened, has been roundly condemned internationally. As more than one leader has put it, there will have to be a price. Such threats must be more than bluster, they have to be credible and substantial.

Military intervention in support of the new government is out of the question, politically and legally – no UN authority would be possible against a Russian veto, while Nato has no legal mandate as there is no mutual assistance guarantee in its relationship with Ukraine. And a military intervention, even if morally justified or requested by the government, would be a massive undertaking that could engulf Nato, the US, and EU in a disastrous war with Russia of unpredictable consequences.

Economic and social sanctions against Russia and individual Russians – targeted at the assets of some of Putin’s oligarch friends – could hurt. But there is also the reality that Russian gas supplies are crucial to much of Europe, and that if Moscow retaliates by turning off the flow, sanctions may cause a blowback as damaging to the EU as to Russia.

Markets may well, however, work as a proxy. Russia paid a large financial price yesterday for its military intervention, with stocks, bonds and the rouble plunging . The stock market fell by 11.3 per cent, wiping nearly $60 billion off the value of companies in a day, and the central bank spent $10 billion of its reserves to prop up the rouble. The economy is deeply vulnerable to volatile capital flows – the flight from the rouble means large net capital outflows, about $60 billion annually in the last two years, and $17 billion in January alone, are set to increase.

EU foreign ministers yesterday pressed for high-level mediation and more diplomatic pressure. Russia faces a boycott of the next G8 summit and will find itself increasingly isolated in world forums. Yes, there will be a price for maintaining the old Soviet empire, Mr Putin, perhaps a new cold war.