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  • Foreign affairs    March 2 
Is the world helpless before Vladimir Putin?

As the West begins to shape its response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, the emerging conventional wisdom is that there is little the world can do to stop Vladimir Putin from doing whatever he wants to do. Here is Peter Baker in The New York Times warning that Russia will likely get away with its Soviet-style land grab fairly easily:

Russia is an even tougher country to pressure, too formidable even in the post-Soviet age to rattle with stern lectures or shows of military force, and too rich in resources to squeeze economically in the short term. With a veto on the United Nations Security Council, it need not worry about the world body. And as the primary source of natural gas to much of Europe, it holds a trump card over many American allies. [The New York Times]

Ben Judah, writing in Politico Magazine, goes further, arguing that wealthy interests in Europe are too invested in Russia's oligarchical scheme to put any pressure on it:

Moscow is not nervous. Russia's elites have exposed themselves in a gigantic manner — everything they hold dear is now locked up in European properties and bank accounts. Theoretically, this makes them vulnerable. The EU could, with a sudden rush of money-laundering investigations and visa bans, cut them off from their wealth. But, time and time again, they have watched European governments balk at passing anything remotely similar to the U.S. Magnitsky Act, which bars a handful of criminal-officials from entering the United States.

All this has made Putin confident, very confident — confident that European elites are more concerned about making money than standing up to him. [Politico Magazine]

In this view, the West has neither the means nor the will to draw Putin's blood. But it does have the means, including the visa bans and banking sanctions that Judah cites, which would chip at the heart of the Russian regime; a revived effort to install missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, which were scrapped amidst a "reset" in relations that is obviously dead and gone; and a general strengthening of Western-friendly governments around Russia, including Georgia, Poland, and the provisional government in Kiev (whether this includes NATO membership in the case of Georgia and Ukraine is a debate for another day).

Does the West have the will? To suggest that it doesn't seems to underestimate the historical significance of the moment. This is a naked land grab on a different order of magnitude than Russia's move into Georgia in 2008, which was legitimately shrouded in a fog-of-war-type situation. Now that the scales have fallen from everyone's eyes, now that Putin's territorial ambitions and agenda have been so totally exposed, the West has little choice but to make his transgressions as painful as possible — otherwise what would stop Putin from expanding his thug regime?

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