Freezing bank accounts and banning new visas of several former Ukrainian officials and of close advisers to Russian President Vladimir Putin do nothing to curb Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
The United States and the European Union imposed those measures Monday. Later in the day, Mr. Putin defiantly responded with a formal recognition of the self-proclaimed independence of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, which Russia had invaded and cut off from the Ukrainian mainland.
Coupled with a dim U.S. threat of further steps, those mistargeted half-measures have sent Mr. Putin a message of weakness, enabling him — Russia’s only decision-maker in the matter — to further his aggression and the partition of Ukraine. They are telling him that the United States and its West European allies are unprepared to deal with him.
As Russia’s de facto dictator and arguably the world’s richest person, Mr. Putin is in a position to compensate his top loyalists many times over for any losses they may suffer from the sanctions. He and his cronies hold most of their assets in Russia or in tax havens outside Western control.
Some of them have already mocked the sanctions on Twitter, because they likely have been assured that Mr. Putin will take care of them, as he always did.
Mr. Putin is notoriously loyal to his supporters, always bailing out even those whose graft was publicly exposed — such as Anatoly Serdyukov, the former Russian defense minister, whom he has sheltered from prosecution.
From Day 1, as Russia’s leader, Mr. Putin staked his popularity on extreme war rhetoric that he sometimes followed with military intervention. Examples include launching a war in tiny Chechnya in late 1999 and in tiny Georgia in 2008. In both cases, Mr. Putin sought a regime change and in both cases his popularity soared.
He is after that again, this time in Ukraine, a 45 million person country in the center of Europe. And he is not likely to stop until he affects that change.
That’s because Mr. Putin rides a wave of Russian chauvinism and anti-Americanism, with his popularity ratings having reached — if not exceeded — the all-time high of 70-plus percent that he enjoyed when he started Russia’s second war in Chechnya, soon after becoming prime minister and just before taking over as president. As a pretext for war then, he used terror acts officially blamed on Chechen separatists but believed by some independent experts to be perpetrated by Russian security services.
Politically, Mr. Putin can’t afford to jump off that wave because it would simply drag him underneath with a more resolute leader replacing him.
Economically, he can endure even the threatened economic isolation of Russia by the West. Russia’s fossil-fuel resources, by all estimates, will last beyond the next 20 years, with China’s market more than enough to compensate for the loss of the Western consumers.
Moreover, such isolation would only help him justify his anti-U.S. hysteria and further tighten the screws in the police state he has created, ultimately guaranteeing his stay in power for life.
The West would do well by dropping its reactive policy of appeasement and empty threats and start thinking about coordinated efforts to undermine the Putin regime, which can be best achieved with some help from Russia’s ally China. Dependent on the Western markets for export of manufactured goods, the Asian country has not been fully supportive of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
The Ukraine situation does not allow the West much time to think of its next move.
Russia’s aggression in this major European country is reminiscent of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968. As in Ukraine, both were launched to quell a revolution for independence from Russia and both used a made-up “fascist threat” as an excuse. And just like in 1956 and in 1968, there is an immediate threat of a shooting war in Europe that should be avoided by all means — including a cold war.
The sooner the West summons the courage to deal with this new reality, the better.
Mike Sigov, a former Russian journalist in Moscow, is a U.S. citizen and a staff writer for The Blade.