When It Comes to Punishing Russia, Our Options Are Limited

I know that economic sanctions are everyone’s favorite way to punish Russia, and I allow for the possibility that over time, sanctions may well take a significant bite out of the Russian economy. But at best, sanctions are an imperfect and crude tool with which to coerce any nation-state, and when it comes to coercing Russia, the economic interests of European countries may prevent sanctions from being effective:

To President Vladimir Putin, Russian billionaires are a vital constituency in a state built on cronyism and kleptocracy.

To London’s luxury property dealers and high-flying bankers, the oligarchs play a different but no less exalted role: free-spending customers willing to shell out gobs of cash for everything from fine Mayfair estates to elite soccer clubs.

Relations between Moscow and Europe may be at their lowest ebb in a generation, but the two sides share a common reliance on Russian high rollers.

It’s a dependency that makes Putin vulnerable if the West decides to get serious about sanctions in the coming days. Yet it also means European leaders are less likely to do so for fear of damaging their own fragile economies. To alienate the oligarchs might mean pricking the property bubble in Moscow-on-Thames, as London is sometimes known.

“At almost every level, this is a city in thrall to Russian money,” said Jonathan Eyal, who directs international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute. “We should be able to withstand Russian blackmail. But we can’t seem to resist the sight of suitcases filled with cash.”

Without the cooperation of the Europeans, there is hardly any kind of international consensus behind punishing Russia for its annexation of the Crimea. And other punishment options are similarly limited:

Vice President Biden sought to reassure anxious allies in a visit to the Polish capital Tuesday about Russia’s takeover of Crimea, denouncing Moscow’s moves to annex the region as a “blatant, blatant disregard of international law.”

Appearing with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Biden offered the moral support of a “steadfast ally” but promised only modest assistance to help Poland modernize its army and explore how to lessen its dependence on Russia’s natural gas.

None of this is to suggest that in the long term, Russia won’t pay some kind of price for its acquisition of Ukraine. In addition to sanctions possibly having an impact on the Russian economy, Russia will be diplomatically isolated, other countries are, and will continue to be less likely to trust Russia, and they will likely balance against Russia by allying with the United States and other countries which have denounced Russian expansionism. But anyone looking for a quick and easy fix to reverse the annexation of the Crimea had better stop looking; such a fix just doesn’t exist. And of course, it ought to go without saying that the invasion of eastern Ukraine by Russia remains a serious–and seriously worrying–possibility.

One Reply to “When It Comes to Punishing Russia, Our Options Are Limited”

  1. Here’s what makes it even worse. Let’s assume that our current leadership will, in fact, attempt to adopt whatever policy, within our limited options, is most likely to have the greatest effect. Do you think for one minute, based on its past performance, that it would implement that policy competently?

    Me neither.

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