Credibility Gap

Why, oh why do we make threats that we cannot and will not back up?

VLADIMIR PUTIN’S assault on Ukraine has been relentless and increasingly reckless: Forces working with Russian personnel in eastern Ukraine are torturing and murdering opponents and holding international observers hostage. In contrast, President Obama’s response has been slow and excruciatingly measured. New U.S. sanctions announced Monday fall well short of the steps that senior officials threatened when the Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine began three weeks ago.

No wonder that, even as he announced them, Mr. Obama expressed skepticism that they would work. “We don’t expect there to be an immediate change in Russia’s policy,” a top aide told reporters. This official acknowledged that the United States could take steps that would impose “severe damage on the Russian economy” but was holding them back. The obvious question is: Why would the United States not aim to bring about an immediate change in Russian behavior that includes sponsorship of murder, torture and hostage-taking?

Well, the answer to that last question is that such measures would harm us, our allies and the global economy in the process. The Russians are convinced that behaving as they do vis-à-vis Ukraine and Crimea is in their national interests, and as realist theory instructs us, nation-states are willing to sustain a great deal of punishment in order to carry out measures that they believe further their national interests. By contrast, there are few strategic interests of any seriousness involved for the United States and its allies, and as a consequence, the United States and its allies are unwilling to sustain the costs of carrying out a successful sanctions campaign against Russia.

But none of this changes the fact that the United States should not be issuing threats against Russia that it cannot and will not back up. Doing so diminishes our credibility, and at this rate, we will soon have precious little credibility left.