Opinion

The West's response to Russia: Limp, little, and late

A sleepwalking America seems to be drifting weeks behind events on the ground in Crimea

For more than two weeks, Russia has effectively occupied the Crimean Peninsula, and for more than two weeks, President Barack Obama has dithered.

On Sunday, Crimean voters approved their annexation to the Russian federation with a ridiculously high 96.7 percent approval rate. Of course, these same Crimeans did go to the voting booths effectively surrounded by gun-wielding Russian troops...

So on Monday, Obama tried to show some toughness. His administration will unilaterally impose what it is calling "the most comprehensive sanctions applied against Russia since the end of the Cold War."

In announcing the sanctions on Monday, Obama put forth a tough-sounding statement, demanding that Russia return to its Crimean bases so that Ukrainians can determine the course for their country. "We'll continue to make clear to Russia that further provocations will achieve nothing except to further isolate Russia," Obama warned, "and diminish its place in the world.... [C]ontinued Russian military intervention in Ukraine will only deepen Russia's diplomatic isolation and exact a greater toll on the Russian economy."

The sanctions are clearly targeted at Vladimir Putin. The first two officials mentioned in the executive order are Vladislav Sukov and Sergey Glazyev, two of Putin's closest advisers. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev avoided making the list, but Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin is included in the sanctions. The head of the breakaway Crimean parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov, stands accused in the order of "threatening the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine, and for undermining Ukraine's democratic institutions and processes," noting specifically the parliament's initial declaration of independence from Ukraine on March 11.

The statement and sanctions send a clear signal to Russia, but not necessarily a daunting message. While Obama clearly preferred to allow Putin a path to retreat, it was equally clear two weeks ago that Putin didn't want to retreat. The announcement of the referendum should have prompted these expanded measures immediately; instead Obama waited for the fraudulent vote to be taken before imposing penalties for the attempt to legitimize the occupation.

But it's not just the timing. The target and teeth of these sanctions leave something to be desired, too. Russia essentially invaded Ukraine, and yet still seems to be a member of the G-8. "I think Vladimir Putin must be encouraged by the absolute timidity" of the sanctions, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told NBC's Andrea Mitchell.

That timidity may have more to do with Europe than with the Obama administration, however. The EU trades heavily with Russia and is particularly dependent on natural gas imports from Gazprom. Europeans may be willing to talk tough and impose some personal sanctions in coordination with the U.S., but so far seem unwilling to go much farther. France appears set to go forward with the $1.7 billion sale of two helicopter carriers to Russia, John Fund reported for National Review on Monday. One ship, the Vladivostok, has already completed its sea trials and is ready for delivery, while the second — ironically named Sebastopol after Russia's Crimean naval base — will be ready by the end of next year.

"What respect could the Russians possibly have for the West," Fund asks, "if France actually delivers sophisticated helicopter carriers that can ferry the Spetsnaz, the Russian military's elite commando forces, to the next target of Russia's choosing?"

Not much. And it's a lesson Russia's neighbors in former Soviet republics in Central Asia and on the Baltic are learning as well. If the U.S. and Europe are waking up late to the threat of Russian expansionism, the countries that are most likely to suffer from it have to be watching the weak, disjointed, and self-interested Western response with horror and dread.

Now, Putin is neither Adolf Hitler nor Joseph Stalin. He isn't doing this out of ideological extremity, or to try and take over the world. Instead, he wants the Russian empire back for its own sake, and to make those republics subject to Moscow once more. That has been obvious since Putin invaded Georgia and "liberated" South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, and then recognized their independence on the same basis that Western nations recognized Kosovo's similar declaration a few months earlier. It's no accident that Putin explicitly cited Kosovo to legitimize the Crimean referendum this weekend. Putin plans to use the Western pretexts of self-determination and ethnic identity to reassemble Greater Russia.

The West may have finally awoken to this threat. It still acts like it's sleepwalking, two to three weeks behind developments and under the impression that Putin shares the same concept of 21st-century leadership as it does. Until Putin's policies produce Western responses that cause widespread economic pain in Russia, the former Soviet republics in Asia and Europe have plenty to fear, and little reason to trust Western strength for their long-term security.

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