Enough Grandstanding. It’s Time For Real Sanctions Against Russia

July 23, 2014
Putin watching war games with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Getty Images

Right and wrong in politics are subject to the force and ability of the powerful to impose their version or perception of such. It is malleable to the force of the victors and the glib propaganda that provides “alternate viewpoints” which massage, contort and finesse the understanding and perception of situations. The ability to obfuscate the fault for actions serves to distance a universally agreed act that is reprehensible, from the proper attribution and blame. In today’s world the goal for actors is to not deny that an act is right or wrong, but to muddy the waters and to inject enough confusion so as to deflect blame or preserve legitimacy. But right and wrong in world affairs is of little consequence, and ultimately vindicated by the acceptance as the status quo.

That is what is being done now in the aftermath of the terrible downing of MH17, a civilian passenger flight with no connection the unending imbroglio that has engulfed eastern Ukraine. And by any measure neither Russia nor the separatists really intended to shoot down the plane, it is in fact the worst possible event for their cause. Yet it was caused by the conditions that they created and continue to foster.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that separatists indeed did down the plane, Russia has chosen to again inject a level of question into the issue, no matter how ridiculous. That is because the goal is to prevent concrete outcomes, not moral indignation.

And to an extent it is a smart strategy, it allows Russia to claim ignorance of the atrocities being committed while deflecting blame for continuing to instigate the anarchy in Ukraine. It also creates the opportunity to undercut calls for stronger sanctions and repercussions against Russia and its conduct.

In the aftermath of Crimea, the U.S. initially imposed strong sanctions targeting Putin’s inner circle, while the EU held off and only targeted Crimean separatist leaders and those who were directly involved in the operation, along with a few companies located in Crimea. Eventually the U.S. followed suit and weakened its later sanctions in deference to its EU allies and their larger economic interests with Russia.

Initially, the sanctions terrified much of the Russian elite and had the potential to seriously alter Putin’s calculus, as the elite would not tolerate the increasing scrutiny of their capital’s provenance as it winds its way through western financial centers. Yet that initial worry was quickly satiated by the lawyers and bankers who serve as “gatekeepers” to the elite; they told them that the sanctions and the appetite by the West would be over in six months and they would gradually weaken. It would target some, and make life uncomfortable, but the status quo would not change.

And by sanctioning separatist leaders and others in the Russian security services involved in these operations while sparing higher level officials and businesses, the U.S. and EU proceeded to reinforce that vision. The idea was to induce Putin into being a proactive and positive influence in bringing the separatists into some sort of diplomatic solution. Yet that was not to be the case as Putin merely jumped from one hollow measure to another in attempts to undercut the impetus for sanctions, such as when he asked his Federation Council to withdraw the authority to invade Ukraine (which they dutifully did but he quickly followed it up by reserving the right to intervene to protect Russians wherever they are).

Yet if there was still any misguided hope that the Kremlin would back away from its anarchic and warlord induced dystopia that it had created—and had gotten away from it as there is increasing evidence of splits among the various separatist leaders and a surprising lack of coordination—MH17 destroyed that hope.

Nor can he just walk away. Putin is caught between the West and a situation that has spun out of his control and mutated far beyond what he wanted, and the virulent nationalists that had first saw him as their nationalist messiah, but now are starting to see him as something of a turncoat for his refusal to openly support and equip the separatists to their liking. And while the prospect of them overthrowing him is nigh impossible, they are a vocal group and are quite likely to make for a significant problem that he will eventually have to face.

This is why calls for weakened sanctions are misguided and in fact due more harm than good. They undercut the threat and fear that they pose. And that is precisely what they are designed to do, to inject fear and question into the Russian elite; an elite that is vastly different from the more isolated authoritarian regimes of Iran and North Korea. The Russian elite, and the wider economy that is primarily under state control or direction, depends on its access to international finance and freedom of movement. That is why sanctions against Russia posed a far more serious threat to Putin and to the elites that he relies on for support. Without their ability to pillage and plunder from the state economy, which is abetted by western financial institutions, the deal whereby Putin is allowed to rule with their support and the elites can continue their business unfettered is under threat.

Nor were sanctions ever designed to be the magic bullet that rolled back the intelligence agents and “little green men” that have a habit of mysteriously popping up wherever Russian interests are. They should be understood as a mechanism, one combined with diplomacy, which is designed to raise the costs and fear of the ruling and business elite to such an extent that they pressure Putin themselves. Sanctions are not a physical force that could eject the Russian acolytes from Ukraine or Crimea, only troops and NATO could do that, and nobody wants WWIII.

The U.S. and the Obama administration finally realized this fact and slapped serious sanctions against some of the largest banks, energy companies and arms manufacturers in Russia. The sanctions, while still relatively loose to allow for maneuvering room, were a dramatic step and differ from the previous sanction lists. Additionally, the U.S. was using its diplomatic power to prod, push and cajole the EU into finally becoming serious about Russia and its unending support for instability in Ukraine.

And that is why after yesterday’s EU foreign minister’s meeting there is hope, however incipient, that the EU is finally coming around to understanding the need for imposing serious sanctions, even if that means serious costs to their economies. Britain’s David Cameron gave a forceful speech to Parliament on Monday where he stated:

“For too long there has been reluctance on the part of too many European countries to face up to the implications of what is happening in Eastern Ukraine. It is time to make our power, influence and resources felt. Over the weekend I agreed with Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande that we should push our partners in the European Union to consider a new range of hard-hitting economic sanctions against Russia.”

Even France committed to not selling the second Mistral assault ship, part of a badly needed $1.6 billion deal, if the EU decided to go ahead with sanctions (although to an extent it is a halfhearted measure as the most important aspect of the deal, the training and transfer of technology, will be complete).

The EU finally agreed on a set of measures that, hopefully, will herald the beginning of a serious commitment by the EU to challenge Russia. They have committed to drawing up a list of individuals that will be subject to sanctions and revealed this Thursday, along with compiling a package of actions:

“The Council recalls the previous commitments by the European Council and remains ready to introduce without delay a package of further significant restrictive measures, if full and immediate cooperation on above mentioned demands fails to materialise. To this end, the Council requests the Commission and the EEAS to finalise their preparatory work on possible targeted measures and to present proposals for taking action, including on access to capital markets, defence, dual use goods, and sensitive technologies, including in the energy sector. The results of this work will be presented on Thursday, 24th July.”

And while it does not actually sanction any industries, it is a powerful step for the EU, and the beginning signs that the understanding that Russia is not committed to a peaceful negotiated settlement on anything other than its preferable terms, and that the West stands more to lose by doing nothing than mere financial interests.

As the 19th century Russian Poet Fedor Tyutchev said: “Russia cannot be understood with the mind, or measured by an ordinary yardstick: She has a special status…”

Let’s hope this realization lasts.