Two things are clear in the crisis over Russia’s effective seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula: Russian President Vladimir Putin scored a knockout in the first round, and economic sanctions will not change what has become a fait accompli.
Certainly the restrained sanctions that President Obama announced on Monday wont. They were tantamount to a slap on the wrist in response to a brazen military takeover of a key province in a neighboring country.
Mr. Obama had repeatedly warned that there would be very heavy costs imposed on Russia if Mr. Putin pursued his bid to annex Crimea. The penalties that he and our European allies announced, though, were underwhelming, to say the least. So much so, that global stock markets shot up here and in Europe, as did Russia’s stock and currency markets in celebration of the soft response.
“So far the sanctions seem fairly toothless and much less severe than had been expected last week,” said economic analyst Kathleen Brooks at Forex.com on Monday.
“From the market’s perspective, the biggest risk was that the referendum would trigger tough sanctions against Russia that could lead to another Cold War,” she said.
In Washington, there was shock at how limited and weak the U.S. sanctions were. In its lead editorial Tuesday, The Washington Post called Mr. Obama’s response all “Bark but no bite.”
“While Vladimir Putin matches or exceeds the most pessimistic expectations of his belligerence — over the weekend, Russian forces extended their invasion from Crimea to an adjacent area of Ukraine — the United States and its allies so far are delivering less than they threatened,” the newspaper said.
From the beginning of this long-planned military thrust into the Ukraine in pursuit of his Cold War dream to rebuild a Greater Russia, Mr. Putin has been running circles around his foes in the United States and Europe.
During the past week or so, he has flooded Crimea with his troops, silenced dissent, organized the region’s Russian-speaking majority in support of a bogus referendum (using pre-marked ballots) to declare that they wanted to be part of Russia, then signed a decree recognizing Crimea as an independent state — a first step under Russian law before annexation.
Meantime, Crimea is petitioning Moscow to join the Russian Federation, adopting the ruble as its official currency, and renaming its parliament, the State Council of the Republic of Crimea.
Mr. Putin is just getting started. He now has his eyes set on larger areas in Eastern Ukraine, if he can get away with it. Russian forces were massed on the Ukrainian border, sending a threatening signal that the rest of their country could be next.
The meek economic sanctions that Mr. Obama announced singled out just seven Russian officials close to Mr. Putin and a only handful of Ukrainian officials, revoking their visas and freezing personal property and currency assets.
None of the big-money men who are supporting Mr. Putin’s police-state regime, nor the banks and oil and gas giants that bankroll the Russian economy, were included in the sanctions. The European Union singled out 21 people, “but far fewer than would be needed to cause pain in the Kremlin,” The Washington Post pointed out.
A number of Russians who faced sanctions, as well as top government officials, mocked Mr. Obama’s move.
“Comrade Obama, what should those who have neither accounts nor property abroad do? Have you not thought about it?” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted. “I think the decree of the President of the United States was written by some joker.”
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Republicans were urging the president to take stronger actions, including an executive order to export U.S. natural gas to Europe, which is heavily dependent on Russia for its energy needs.
“The highest priority should go to approving exports to Europe, where in many places Russia has a near-monopoly on natural gas,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in an analysis on CNN’s website.
It seems clear that whatever Mr. Obama does in terms of tougher sanctions or other actions, it won’t change what has happened in Crimea, which remains a done deal.
“Crimea is lost. In practice, there’s no way that Ukraine is ever going to get it back,” says Anatol Lieven, professor of foreign relations at King’s College London.
“The question now, and it’s a vastly greater strategic question, is what happens in eastern Ukraine,” he said.
It hasn’t received the attention it deserves here in the nation’s capital, but Russia has already indicated that it’s next move might well be into the eastern part of Ukraine, under the pretense of protecting the Russian-speaking minority from Ukrainian nationalists.
The Ukraine government has already accused Moscow of triggering unrest and dissension in the region to justify an invasion, just as it did in Crimea.
If that’s the next shoe to drop, Mr. Obama and his foreign-policy team have sent disturbing signs in the interim that they are not up to the challenges posed by Mr. Putin in his own backyard.
During the past two weeks, the president and Secretary of State John F. Kerry have been caught flat-footed by the swift, cold-blooded actions of a ruthless former KGB agent who dreams of restoring what President Reagan called the “evil empire.”
Theodore Roosevelt once famously said that when dealing with foreign tyrants, it was important to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” In his emotionless, perfunctory delivery of his toothless sanctions on Monday, Mr. Obama spoke far too softly and carried no stick.
A vulnerable nation in Eastern Europe that wants to align itself with the West is under siege by a bloodthirsty dictator who is used to getting what he wants. Is this the best that Mr. Obama can do?
Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.