Diplomatic Crimes and Punishments

by Henry Precht

Imagine, if you can, the recent scene in the White House situation room in which senior [appointed] officials are debating how to respond to Russia’s take-over of Crimea.

The experts on the media and Congress will speak up first for they will provide the most important bit of context in which the president’s decision must be taken. Then some knowledgeable folk will talk about the attitudes of US allies in Europe and around the globe. How far are the Europeans — who have big investments with Russia and depend heavily on Russian deliveries of oil and natural gas — willing to go? The Pentagon and CIA will weigh in with their list of moves, short of firing a shot: US forces and spies can demonstrate resolve, project superior strength and warn Moscow of possible dangers ahead. Finally, someone who can pass as a Russian expert will offer a judgment on how that country might respond to elements of the toxic stew under contemplation.

At the end of the conference table will sit the president who must make the final decision. How will the ex-social worker, ex-professor, anti-war liberal decide? He will, almost certainly, have heard before the meeting from private pollsters and special friends who will offer sage advice. He might not decide at all. A naturally cautious man, he may delay, retire for deep, uninterrupted (except for telephone conversations with key friends, e.g., German’s Merkel) thought and then pronounce.

Thus, in all likelihood it was that the elite around President Vladimir Putin (but not the man himself) were sanctioned by Washington — denied visas, assets here frozen. Later the list is expanded for a few other names, a bank and Russia’s membership in the Group of Eight suspended. Worse to come is muttered.

Thus, one more country is subjected to Washington’s favored form of torture — the sanction, so far in this case, the mildest of versions. Five things we can say about this tool of diplomacy:

  • They don’t usually work. That is, they rarely change the policy or behavior of the subject government. Sanctions did the job with South Africa in good part because they had almost world-wide adherence. They put a squeeze on Iran because they were ruthless, but probably were not decisive. Elsewhere the object of our pressure has shrugged.
  • Sanctions do work — at home. Imposing sanctions is an administration’s way of saying to critics: Look, we’re doing something. It doesn’t cost much. Be patient.
  • Sometimes, if the recipient is big and tough enough, sanctions can provoke costly retaliation. It remains to be seen whether Russia will react to the costly disadvantage of sanctioning nations that depend on it — for gas, trade or for cooperation with thorny world issues, e.g., Iran and Syria.
  • When the purpose is to separate the government of an unpleasant regime and its people, the result is often precisely the opposite. We ought to learn from history. In World War II bombing German civilians had the opposite from the intended effect, which was “to drive a wedge between people and regime.” Instead, like latter-day sanctions, the result was “to increase civilian dependence on the state and the party.”
  • Finally, undoing sanctions is a lot harder than imposing them. Easy for Congress to vote this or that punishment against Iran or Russia; hard to find the votes to undo or loosen them.

The Crimea crisis is still hot. Big Thinkers in the administration and in Europe are still trying to devise ways to push Russia into retreat. Russians sinned; they shall be dammed until they repent. Tough love, Washington says, to preserve world order. At some point, maybe after talking to wise parents or spouses without talking points, the big thinking bureaucrats just might reflect and drift towards a different perception:

Maybe, the West isn’t just dealing with President Putin. Maybe he’s closer to reality than we are in speaking of Russian history, sensitivity and nationalism. A sense of betrayal at NATO expansion. Maybe we are dealing with a nation, not a clique.

Another thought intrudes on established, establishment Western truths: Maybe Russia is more important as a partner — even a difficult, tricky one — than as a target of outrage. We are as dependent on Russian cooperation on Iran, Syria and the Middle East as Europe is on the economic linkages. European economies are sickly; they don’t need an infection of troublesome Russian viruses. The US doesn’t need the grave risks from persisting Middle East tensions.

At that point, Big Thinkers will start the search for face-saving measures. That, after all, is the only way to help Ukraine, which must reside between East and West and depend on both. A new regime in Kiev could salve sores and enable the West to shelve sanctions.

Henry Precht

Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service Officer, worked mainly in the Middle East. His assignments included the Arab-Israel Desk after the 1967 war, four years in Tehran as political-military officer, in charge of the State Department Iran Desk during the revolution and hostage crisis, and two tours in Egypt – Alexandria in the 1960s and deputy ambassador in Cairo 1981-85. Precht speaks and writes on the region, and has published a book of short stories, A Diplomat’s Progress.



  1. History – How any times have England, and even our own governments, invade and take over another country’s land?

  2. Good post Mr Precht. As for the big thinkers search for face-saving measures, the biggest one will be to sing in chorus: “It’s all O’s fault”, he’s the one who did it. Wasn’t that the theme of the Nazis at Nuremberg?

  3. Right on! Henry! We have a serious problem here, in politics, strategy, policy and diplomacy. Focusing on the immediate problem (Crimea, Ukraine) is necessary but insufficient. This problem was made virtually inevitable more than twenty years ago. It seems we made a big error in the early ’90’s when, as the Soviet Union collapsed, we elected to embrace what we called the Eastern Europe/Former Warsaw Pact (EE/FWP) and Former Soviet Union (FSU) states but excluded Russia. (We can blame both Bush the Elder and Clinton, so it is bipartisan). We’re going to have to revisit those decisions if we are to find our way past the current, building crisis.

    We seem to have been convinced (perhaps having just lost our favorite enemy) that “Russkies are Russkies and the Red Threat will rise again” (as in, “The South …”?). In hindsight, we would have been better off today had we made “embracing” the Russians our first priority — brought them first into the EU and then into NATO with the EE/FSU states a half-step behind, rather than ahead.

    We need these guys (the Russians) — for Iran, Syria, Iraq and to help us sort out our relations with China which needs to be the focus of our attention for the next hundred years or more. Isolating and ostracizing the Russians is exactly the opposite of what we need to be doing.

    Are times past, times passed? Or, are our political and diplomatic capacities up to the task of unwinding the knot we are continuing to use to bind ourselves ever tighter?

  4. Thank you for this excellent analysis. President Obama should have learned from Congressional reaction to his efforts at rapprochement with Iran that “undoing sanctions is a lot harder than imposing them.” Instead of a Cold War mentality of wishing to push NATO closer and closer to Russian borders, it would be more productive to find ways of integrating Russia into Europe and persuading her to cooperate with a whole host of issues including Iran, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and above all the growing risk of Jihadi terrorism that is spreading from Syria to Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and in time to other countries in the Middle East and may be even to Europe and America. This may be one of the reasons why both Russia and Iran are supporting Bashar Assad’s secular government.

    In the fight against Al Qaeda, the West should coopt Russia and Iran rather than constantly trying to antagonize them. The Cold War is over, the Islamic revolution in Iran has lost its appeal and its zeal. It is time to put the entire region right again with the help of Russia, rather than trying to fight old wars.

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