Promising to turn back the clock on Russian relations, the U.S. and EU are poised to slap the Russian Federation with travel and economic sanctions for seizing Crimea March 1. Russian President Vladimir Putin waited only one week after the Sochi Olympics before invading Crimea, after pro-EU demonstrators toppled the Russian-backed government Feb. 22 of Viktor Yanukovich. Washington and Brussels insist Putin recognize the new revolutionary government led by 49-year-old Okeksandr Turchynov, whose hostility toward Moscow prompted Putin to annex Crimea to protect Russian interests. Obama insists that if Russia doesn’t retreat from Crimea, the U.S. and EU will be “forced to apply costs” on Moscow, prompting retaliatory countermeasures. Instead of sitting down with Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Obama has turned up the heat.
Ukraine’s newly minted 39-year-old Prime Minister Arsenly Yastenyuk met with Obama today in the Oval Office, insisting Ukraine would “never surrender” Crimea without consequences. Turchyov signaled that the Ukrainian military has no immediate plans to confront Russia in Crimea. Obama hopes that economic sanctions will convince Putin that the benefits of hanging onto Crimea don’t justify the costs. Russia’s ruble has already lost over 10% since the standoff began March 1, where Russian central bank pumped in $1.5 billion rubles to prop up the currency. Trading about 35 billion euros each year largely on energy products, the EU’s sanctions could have a crippling effect on the Russian economy. While the U.S. trades only 10% of the EU with Russia, travel bans and asset freezes could jolt the Russian economy, prompting Putin to reconsider his move in Crimea.
Putin objects to the West’s hypocrisy on Crimea, where it backs Kiev’s pro-EU coup, while, at the same time, ripping Russia for taking defensive countermeasures seizing Crimea. Putin plans to go forward with a March 17 vote on Crimean independence, something the U.S. and EU say is illegal. No Western power has acknowledged that Ukraine’s revolutionary government is equally illegal. “Almost a week ago, we said that if that wasn’t successful within a few days, we’d have to consider a second stage of sanctions,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country stands to lose its vital source of natural gas and petroleum. Russia’s March 17 referendum gives Ukrainians a choice between joining Russia or maintaining independence from Ukraine and Russia. Crimea’s 2 million people seem split over what to do.
U.S. and EU officials talked of an “off ramp” for Putin, giving him a face-saving way out. To win Putin’s backing Ukraine’s revolutionary government would have to reinstate the lawfully elected Ukrainian leader Yanukovich. Neither Turchynov nor Yastenyuk would agree to reinstate Yanukovich. Merkel’s shown more restraint than Washington in applying sanctions. Russia could present far more complications for Germany than the U.S. “In addition to its impact on the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea could have grave implications for the legal order that protect the unity and sovereignty of all states,” read a joint communiqué from the G7, including the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Canada, urging Putin to stop the March 17 referendum on Crimean independence or joining the Russian Federation.
Treading on thin ice, Putin stands to lose big if the U.S. and EU move forward with economic and travel sanctions. Russia only accounts for about one percent of the EU’s $16.5 trillion gross domestic product, where trade with the EU accounts for 15% of Russia’s GDP. “A trade conflict would be painful for the German economy, but for the Russian economy it would be life-threatening,” said Anton Boerner, head of Germany’s BGA lobbying group. U.S. and EU officials hope that tough economic and trade sanctions convince Putin that his adventure in Crime isn’t worth it. “Talking of very tough sanctions is probably a negotiating tool and at this state the impact will be limited. But it’s the anticipation of stronger action that could potentially be more harmful,” said Neal Shearing, head of emerging market research at London-based Capital Economics believing Putin would eventually cave.
U.S. and EU officials need to find a better “off ramp” for Putin than threatening economic sanctions. Based on his nearly complete military takeover of Crimea and expected March 17 referendum on independence, Putin doesn’t appear close to retreating, no matter what the threats. Applying more economic sanctions and travel restrictions only stiffens Putin’s resolve to go it alone without the U.S. or EU. Watching Yanukovich evicted Feb. 22 proved to Putin that the current Ukrainian regime has little regard for Moscow. If the U.S. and EU really want to understand the Russian perspective, they’d give Putin more time to explain his thoughts about Ukraine’s new anti-Russian revolutionary government. Suggesting that the new revolutionary government has more legitimacy than the past elected government makes no sense to Putin. Getting out of Crimea would be easier without the threat of sanctions.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.