by Mark N. Katz
Just a few months ago, everything seemed to be going well for Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. After the initial setback of Moscow’s ally, President Viktor Yanukovich, fleeing Kiev and being replaced by a pro-Western government, Putin seized control of Crimea in a surprise move that succeeded very quickly and almost bloodlessly. Small numbers of pro-Russian separatists then took over several cities in eastern Ukraine where there are large Russian populations. The new Ukrainian government was powerless to prevent this, and its American and European allies appeared either unwilling or unable to help. Indeed, Germany, France, and Italy in particular seemed more concerned about retaining their lucrative trade relations with Russia than with preserving the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Nor did there appear to be any significant barrier to Putin seizing all of eastern and southern Ukraine. The image of a “rising Russia” stood in stark contrast to that of a weak, ineffectual, and divided West.
Now the situation seems quite different. Ukrainian forces have managed to retake much of eastern Ukraine from the pro-Russian separatists. Western public opinion has become increasingly critical of Russia in the wake of flight MH17 being shot down over territory held by the separatists, and over their truly boorish behavior in allowing Western access to the crash site and recovering the bodies. The United States and the European Union have now gone beyond the largely cosmetic sanctions they first imposed after the Russian takeover of Crimea; this week they announced broader sanctions affecting weapons sales, technology transfer, and Russian access to Western capital markets. Many Western corporations have already announced plans to limit further investment in Russia, or even to pull out of the Russian market. More tellingly, Russians themselves are moving massive amounts of money out of Russia to safer havens.
Some have criticized the European Union for only imposing sanctions that do not hurt its own economic interests. The EU has, for example, placed sanctions on the Russian oil industry, but not the gas industry, which it is more dependent on. Nor does the ban on future EU weapons sales to Russia affect current contracts, including the sale of two aircraft carriers that France has been building for Moscow. Still, these sanctions are much stronger than what appeared likely just a few months ago. And both European and American leaders have declared that they could ratchet up sanctions if Putin does not change course on Ukraine.
Will he? Moscow, predictably, has reacted to these new sanctions “with defiance,” as numerous press reports have indicated. These measures cannot force Putin to withdraw from Crimea or end Moscow’s support for the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. However, Western sanctions, combined with the Ukrainian government’s success in retaking some territory in the east, have worked to increase the costs Putin must pay for his Ukraine policy. If the Russian leader previously calculated that he could seize Crimea and eastern Ukraine cheaply and easily and that the West would be unable to impose meaningful costs on him because it “needs Russia” more than vice versa, he now has cause to revise his thinking.
In other words, the broader Western sanctions as well as the more effective Ukrainian opposition to Putin’s policies have served to raise questions about whether the benefits of his efforts to take territory from Kiev are worth the increasing costs of doing so. Putin may accept these costs, but his supporters, who have up to now benefited from doing business with the West, might not agree. If they don’t, the Russian president could find himself in serious trouble.
Western sanctions cannot force Putin to change course in Ukraine, but by raising the costs of his aggressive policies, they can undermine support from the powerful Russian economic actors that he has previously relied on. If he is not careful, the glorious victory he has envisioned in Ukraine will turn into a trap of his own making.
Photo: A memorial for the victims of Flight MH17 at the Amsterdam International Airport (Schiphol), July 21, 2014. Credit: Pejman Akbarzadeh/Persian Dutch Network