West has only limited options in Ukraine

Opinion: There is a danger of exaggerating the power and the threat posed by Putin


In truth realpolitik dictates there’s not a lot that the West can actually do about making Vladimir Putin “pay a price” for his Ukraine adventure. To pretend otherwise, notably the line that US and EU appeasement of Russia has led to its confident expansionism, is simply to beat the US Republican political drum, an unconvincing bid to embarrass a “weak” Barack Obama.

“Ever since the [Obama] administration threw themselves in [Putin’s] arms in Syria. I think he’s seen weakness. These are the consequences,” Tennessee senator Bob Corker has complained. But such views are relics of the delusion of American omnipotence.

Peter Baker of the New York Times recalls that during the Bush era and Putin’s invasion of Georgia, “Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bristled at what she called the ‘chest beating’”, mostly of her own Republican supporters calling for ever-tougher posturing on the part of the US. The West did little beyond diplomatic protests.

In the Ukraine the military option has always also been out – the cold war is over but its realities and zones of interest persist, still constraining both sides. And Russia’s UN veto makes legitimisation of any action impossible anyway.

The realities of global economic interconnectedness and interdependence mean that even talk of economic sanctions is difficult. With a quarter of its energy imports coming from Russia the option of energy sanctions is not on.

Even the banking/financial sanctions which the Americans seem to be favouring are likely to be limited as they pose serious problems for London. Oligarchs’ bank accounts in the City cannot be touched.

As Simon Jenkins put it in the Guardian , “The only costs and consequences on which anyone can agree is to cancel a G-something summit in a luxury hotel somewhere, and to ban oligarchs from shopping at Harrods and sending their sons to Eton . . . To this has the mighty British empire fallen . . . Putin must be rolling on the floor with laughter.”

Distorting Putin
But if Obama and the West’s options are limited, there is also the danger of exaggerating the power and threat of Putin. The truth is neither his level of ambition nor his capability are what his predecessors’ were. This is no Hungary or Czechoslovakia. Invasion and the overthrow of the new Kiev administration, no matter how desirable, is out of the question. No more than it was in Georgia in 2008 when he had to settle for a couple of secessionist provinces. At worst, this time, he will have to content himself with holding on to Crimea and possibly an annexed chunk of eastern Ukraine. And still pay a heavy price diplomatically and economically (if not through sanctions, then through the market’s disapproval – a plummeting rouble and accelerated flight of capital).

US thinking, reports from Washington say, and the outcome of Thursday’s EU summit suggest a strategy geared to that reality. Doubtful they can force Russia to leave Crimea – some admit Crimea is “lost” – the challenge, and the calibration of the official rhetoric, has been pitched less at reversing new realities and more at persuading Putin to go no further than he has, notably by staying out of eastern Ukraine, which he has hinted he wants to do anyway. And to provide him with a face-saving de-escalation strategy.

Russian speakers
If, US and EU diplomats are arguing quietly, Putin’s real preoccupation is with the rights of Russian speakers, as he claims, and not with territorial gain, then, if Moscow will at least recognise the new Kiev government, perhaps a deal can be done along the lines of copperfastening those rights . . . a federal constitution, say, giving both Crimea and the east of the country strong degrees of autonomy. Kiev would just do defence and foreign relations.

Kicking the fascists/ultra-nationalists out of the new government would be essential, as would be a renewed commitment that Nato would not seek to expand to Ukraine, a particularly neuralgic issue for Russia. Let international monitors replace Russian troops in the streets to guard against any attacks on Russian speakers. And end the noisy talk of reviving old projects of putting missiles into Poland and other former Soviet allies.

In the medium term, the US and EU must also elaborate how their vision of non-exclusive partnerships between the EU and Ukraine and the Ukraine and Putin’s “Eurasian Customs Union”could work.

Moscow, Brussels has rightly been saying, is part of a solution. An EU promise of $11 billion in aid is part of the sweeteners. Secretary of state John Kerry sent the right signals in Tuesday’s press conference in Kiev. “We’re not seeking confrontation,” he said. The US acknowledged Russia’s legitimate interests in Ukraine, he said, but the latter’s relations with Russia “should not be at the expense of having a relation with the rest of the world”.

It’s called diplomacy. And it’s not a sign of weakness, but a recognition of reality.


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