The shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine may finally force Washington and Europe to wake up to the danger of the conflict there escalating into full-blown war between Russia and Ukraine.
This potential cataclysm has been inching closer to reality in the last week. The Ukrainian security council has said Russian weapons and troops have been crossing into Ukraine, and military aircraft from both sides have engaged each other. Documented videos purport to show artillery fire into Ukraine from the Russian side. On Sunday the Russian media went berserk with reports of the first casualty of a Russian civilian on the Russian side, from an artillery shot of disputed origin.
Former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told me Monday he was decidedly more pessimistic about the prospects for resolving this crisis than he was three months ago. As a veteran of international negotiations in 1999 on Kosovo and in 2003 on Iraq, he was perplexed as to why the international community was not trying harder to resolve the Ukraine crisis. Last weekend the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, met with Iran on its nuclear issue but failed to use that opportunity to discuss Ukraine seriously.
The Ukraine conflict urgently requires the most resolute and determined efforts to de-escalate before we reach a point no return. Washington should be focusing policy attention on strengthening Ukraine’s capacity to defend its sovereignty, economically and physically; instead it has a misplaced obsession with using economic sanctions to punish Russia. The Obama administration and its critics on the right, such as Republican Sen. Bob Corker, contend that such sanctions will change Russian behavior, but there is not a shred of evidence to suggest this strategy would be effective.
There are many reasons why a policy over-weighted on punishing Russia is a dubious strategy at best.
First, the Russian economy was in stagnation, if not recession, with capital flying out of the country at record rates before the annexation of Crimea in March. The Obama administration cannot credibly claim its policies have made a significant difference to the Russian economy. They only allow Vladimir Putin to blame the West for Russia’s poor economy and deflect attention from the real culprit, his failed economic policy since returning to the presidency two years ago.
Second, Russia’s political economy and psychology are far more suited to absorbing punishment than the West. Russian companies suffering from sanctions can likely expect government subsidies to compensate their losses. I doubt U.S. and European companies can expect the same. They will simply lose market share. What’s more, a thousand years of history suggests the Russians are by far the most effective in punishing themselves.
Finally, if Russians perceive their punishment is inflicted by others, it is a powerful stimulant to national consolidation and a spur to inflict unimaginable punishment on others. Putin is an archetypal traditional Russian leader who aspires to making a historical imprint like Stalin and Ivan the Terrible. This is a bloody serious game he is playing, cynical and determined beyond what flabby American and European strategic thinking can or wants to comprehend.
He will not be deterred by sanctions. He has made a mockery of the G7 ultimatum in June that he cease and desist in Ukraine in 30 days or else. He has responded by sending more men and equipment across the border, with the predictable result that the “separatists” (the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic is led by well-known Russian citizens) actions have escalated.
The only good news is that the Ukrainian government’s military force has been extremely successful in destroying pro-Russian rebel strongholds over the past month. And herein lies the urgency of the problem. The rebel cause has been close to failing, with the defense of Luhansk and Donetsk being the endgame. Putin cannot allow that to happen as it could shatter his leadership position — he will not allow it to happen, plain and simple. The Ukrainian government has every right to defend its sovereignty against this Russian-instigated insurgency.
There is no other solution but urgent diplomacy to de-escalate and to get international peacekeepers to the border region as quickly as possible. The stakes in allowing this war to go on are far too high to allow for anything else.
Andrew C. Kuchins is director and senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.