The United States has once again twisted itself into a rhetorical pretzel. As when it threatened military action against Syria if a “red line” was crossed, the Obama administration’s rhetoric about Russia and Ukraine goes far beyond what it will be willing and able to enforce.
Earlier this month, President Obama warned that America would “isolate Russia” if it grabbed more land, and yesterday, he suggested that more sanctions were possible. Likewise, Secretary of State John Kerry said the Group of 7 nations were “prepared to go to the hilt” in order to isolate Russia.
But Washington’s rhetoric is dangerously excessive, for three main reasons: Ukraine is far more important to Vladimir V. Putin than it is to America; it will be hard for the United States and Europe to make good on their threats of crippling sanctions; and other countries could ultimately defang them.
First, the United States needs to see the Ukraine crisis from Russia’s viewpoint. Threats from America and Europe will never be the determining factor in Mr. Putin’s decision making. Ukraine is Russia’s single biggest national security issue beyond its borders, and Mr. Putin’s policy, including whether to seize more of Ukraine, will be informed overwhelmingly by national security interests, not near-term economics.
Furthermore, Russia has provided Ukraine with some $200-$300 billion in natural gas subsidies since 1991. With an anti-Russian government in Ukraine, Moscow is likely to stop these subsidies, lifting a major economic burden just as the West tries to squeeze it financially.
Second, if Russia pushes farther into Ukraine, America’s attempt at tougher Iran-style sanctions, coordinated with allies, will ultimately fail. Indeed, if Mr. Putin pursues a broader military campaign, a similarly robust response from both America and Europe is unlikely.
Russia’s energy exports, its commercial power and its sheer size make the costs of ignoring it prohibitively high for Europe. Despite the Group of 7’s recent exclusion of Russia, the Europeans don’t want to go to extremes. The Ukrainian ambassador to the European Union called the current sanctions a “mosquito bite”; and even these modest actions have left many European powers feeling skittish. Britain and France have been very cautious, the Austrians and Cypriots even more so. (Austria buys more than half of its gas from Russia; Cyprus has huge Russian banking exposure.)
And finally, even if America seeks stringent sanctions against Russia, other nations will ignore them and offset any damage they cause. India absolutely refuses to treat Russia like a rogue state. More important, China will not observe such sanctions.
The fundamental problem is that the Obama administration doesn’t want to bear the costs associated with an active foreign policy. That’s understandable. A December Pew poll revealed the lowest level of public support for an active American foreign policy since 1964.
This domestic pressure was on display in Syria. Mr. Obama’s error was not that he backed away from military action and accepted Russia’s proposal to rid Syria of chemical weapons. The mistake was that he drew a red line that would have been more costly to back up than the United States was willing to tolerate. America lost credibility internationally for failing to make good on its threat.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration is repeating this mistake in Ukraine.
When Russia proceeded with the annexation of Crimea, the United States and Europe responded with punitive measures that had some economic impact. But they did not by any means “go to the hilt.” Instead, the Americans and Europeans drew an even deeper line in the sand, issuing empty threats of sweeping sanctions if Russia tried to grab more territory in Ukraine.
Such sharp rhetoric from the West could push Mr. Putin to be even more aggressive. That’s because he does not believe that the West would ever treat Russia like Iran and implement robust sanctions that would cut off vast areas of Russia’s economy from the West. As Mr. Putin recently explained, in a globalized world “it’s possible to damage each other — but this would be mutual damage.”
“Isolating Russia” as if it were Iran or North Korea isn’t a threat America can feasibly make good on. Just because Mr. Putin is acting like the leader of a rogue state, his country cannot be considered as such. Russia boasts the world’s eighth-largest economy. Given the exposure of American corporations to Russia, there would be serious pushback from the private sector if Mr. Obama tried to relegate Russia to rogue-state status. The Obama administration needs to preach what it will ultimately practice. Otherwise Washington’s credibility will erode further as it walks back its words.
A more hard-line response is not the answer. Mr. Obama was right to rule out the military option; diplomacy is America’s only viable path forward.
But Washington needs to anticipate a Russian response from a Russian perspective. In a major speech on Wednesday, Mr. Obama hinted that further sanctions would be implemented if Russia maintained its present course. That is a mistake. Russia will not back down, and such talk will only ratchet up tensions.
The Obama administration should focus on supporting Kiev rather than punishing Moscow. That means using its leverage with Europe to ensure that this support sticks, and that Ukraine’s new government does nothing to provoke an extreme response. This will require an acknowledgment of Russia’s core interests and America’s limitations — and an end to empty threats.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and a global research professor at New York University.