Sanctions Against Putin Won’t Do Much For Crimea, But We Should Impose Them Anyway

Dan Drezner, after waiting an unconscionably long four or five days, has weighed in on the efficacy of economic sanctions against Russia:

Sorry, but the fact remains that sanctions will not force Russia out of the Crimea. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be imposed. Indeed, there are two excellent reasons why the United States should orchestrate and then implement as tough as set of sanctions on Russia as it can muster.

First, this problem is going to crop up again. Vladimir Putin has now invaded two neighbors in six years to destabilize regimes perceived to be hostile to him. Post-Crimea, any new Ukraine government will continue to be hostile to the Russian Federation. There are other irredentist areas in the former Soviet Union — *cough* Transnistria *cough* — where Putin will be tempted to intervene over the next decade. At a minimum, he should be forced to factor in the cost of sanctions when calculating whether to meddle in his near abroad again. President Obama was correct to point out the “costs” to Putin for his behavior — now he has to follow through on that pledge.

Second, while sanctions cannot solve this problem on their own, they can be part of the solution. Over the long term, Russia does need to export energy to finance its government and fuel economic growth. Even if planned sanctions won’t bite in the present, the anticipation of tougher economic coercion to come is a powerful lever in international bargaining. The closer the European Union moves towards joining the U.S. sanctioning effort, the more that Russia has to start thinking about the long-term implications of its actions. Any political settlement over the future of Ukraine will require compromise by the new Ukrainian government and its supporters in the West. Imposing sanctions now creates a bargaining chip that can be conceded in the future.

This mirrors my own judgment. Putin has very plainly decided that invading Crimea is worth the price, and it’s improbable that economic sanctions—especially the scattershot variety that we’re likely to put together in this case—will change that. Nevertheless, it needs to be clear that there really is a price. It also needs to be clear that face-saving compromises are still available to Putin that might lower that price.

For my money, the biggest price Putin is paying comes not from any possible sanctions, but from the very clear message he’s now sent to bordering countries who have long been suspicious of him anyway. Yes, Putin has shown that he’s not to be trifled with. At the same time, he’s also shown every one of his neighbors that he can’t be trusted. Two mini-invasions in less than a decade is plenty to ramp up their anti-Russian sentiment to a fever pitch.

Putin’s invasion has already cost him a lot in flexibility and maneuvering room, and it’s very unlikely that tighter control over Crimea really makes up for that. At this point, it’s hardly a question of whether Putin has won or lost. It’s only a question of just how big his losses will be.


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