Two years ago Russia detached Crimea from Ukraine. Since then the Western allies have imposed economic sanctions, but to little effect. No one believes Crimea, Russian until six decades ago, is going back to Ukraine.
Yet the European Union called on other countries to join its ineffective boycott. However, most nations have avoided the controversy. They aren’t going to declare economic war on a faraway nation which has done nothing against them.
Although Washington, with less commerce at stake, remains among the most fervent advocates of sanctions, Europe is divided over the issue. Opposition has emerged to routine renewal in July of restrictions on Russia’s banking, energy, and military industries. Particularly skeptical of continued economic war are Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, and Italy.
Sanctions supporters insist that Russia more fully comply with the Minsk peace process and end support for the separatist campaign in Ukraine’s east. “Today Russia faces a choice between the continuation of economically damaging sanctions and fully meeting its obligations under Minsk,” contended Secretary of State John Kerry.
Yet the armed conflict has ebbed, political crisis fills Kiev and some Ukrainians aren’t sure they want the separatists back. Indeed, Oksana Syroyid, Deputy Speaker of Ukraine’s Rada, has blocked passage of a constitutional amendment providing autonomy for the Donbas region, explaining: “We need to stop thinking of how to counter Putin, or how to please all our partners.”
Brussels faces the unpleasant possibility of Russia fulfilling its responsibilities while Ukraine breaks the deal. “Both sides need to perform,” complained Germany Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Targeted sanctions against named individuals and concerns have a certain appeal. However, there is little evidence that they are more effective than broader measures.
The latter have hurt the Russian public without turning many of them against their government. Moreover, Western penalties have discouraged, even reversed, liberalization of the Russian economy, as businesses have grown even more dependent on government support.
The belief that imposing sanctions a little longer will force Moscow to capitulate reflects the triumph of hope over experience. Rather than reflexively continue sanctions, the Western states should rethink their policy toward Russia.
Vladimir Putin isn’t a nice guy, but that hardly sets him apart from other authoritarians. Geopolitically Ukraine matters far more to Moscow than to Europe or America. Russia always will spend and risk more to protect its perceived security interests next door.
And the West did much to challenge Moscow, including encourage a street revolt against a democratically elected president. That still didn’t justify Russia’s brutal actions to dismember its neighbor, but Putin acted predictably and rationally. He is neither Hitler nor Stalin reincarnated, but a traditional Tsar. Putin has never demonstrated a desire to swallow non-Russian peoples.
Thus, I argued in Forbes, “the allies should negotiate their way out of the sanctions box in which they are stuck. They could drop economic war, promise to stop expanding NATO along Russia’s border (most importantly, to Ukraine), reduce military support for Kiev, and encourage Ukraine to look both ways economically. Moscow could drop support for Ukrainian separatists, cooperate with restructuring Kiev’s unsustainable debts, accept Ukrainian economic ties with the EU, hold an internationally monitored status referendum in Crimea, and accept whatever outcomes emerge from the messy Ukrainian political system.”
Of course, Kiev is independent and free to decide its own future. But Ukrainians should choose their own course while fully aware that no one in the West is prepared to initiate all-out economic war, let along military conflict, with nuclear-armed Russia over Kiev’s status.
The U.S. and Europe shouldn’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good in policy toward Russia. At most economic sanctions act as a moral statement, but one better made through other means.
At the same time, there are many important issues in which the West would benefit from Russian assistance. After two years, it’s time to make a deal with Moscow.