As heavy fighting resumed this week in eastern Ukraine, it was obvious that Russian President Vladimir Putin had disregarded demands from the United States and European Union that Russia stop intervening. Rebels backed by Moscow did not hand back border posts. Military supplies have not stopped flowing across the border.
Mr. Putin did not compel the insurgents to observe a cease-fire, leaving the Ukrainian government no choice but to resume military operations. As U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization commander, put it: “What we see is continued conflict [and] continued support of the conflict from the east side of the border.”
President Obama and E.U. leaders now face the test of delivering on their rhetoric. Mr. Obama said on June 5 that if Mr. Putin “over the next two, three, four weeks ... remains on the current course,” new sanctions would be applied to the Russian economy. Four weeks have passed.
Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry said “it is critical for Russia to show in the next hours, literally, that they are moving to help disarm the separatists.” Many hours have passed with no disarmament. E.U. leaders set a Monday deadline for a series of steps, including the evacuation of border posts. These have not been carried out.
A failure by the West to act on such explicit rhetoric would be a craven surrender that only would provoke more Russian aggression. Yet so far, the signs are not good.
Despite promising to respond “without delay” if its ultimatum was not heeded, E.U. leaders reportedly postponed any response until next week. The Obama Administration is hiding behind the Europeans, saying it cannot move unless and until they do. So U.S. credibility is contingent on an accord among 28 nations, including Cyprus, Greece, and several others that are friendly to Russia.
Businessmen on both sides of the Atlantic warn about the potential cost of measures aimed at the Russian energy or banking industries. But the three sanctions under discussion are modest; officials call them “surgical.”
They could restrict future investment in new Russian energy projects or limit technology transfers. They will neither inflict serious damage on the Russian economy nor cost Western jobs. Yet they are needed to restore pressure on the Russian stock market and ruble, both of which have rebounded in recent weeks in the absence of Western action.
Administration officials say they still hope to reach agreement with Europe on a sanctions package. Joint U.S.-E.U. action would be preferable; Mr. Putin would like nothing better than to drive a wedge between the allies over Ukraine. But the worst outcome would be inaction, even as Ukraine’s army desperately attempts to contain an insurgent force, including Russians, that has been equipped and advised by Moscow.
The relative good news in recent weeks has been Mr. Putin’s tempering of his aggression out of fear of sanctions. If there is no response, he will lose that fear.