This week the U.S. Treasury Department announced a new traunch of economic sanctions that, among other things, should compel Russia to scale back adventurism in the Crimea and Ukraine. A reporter had asked me about it and the image of a bear in the woods came to mind.
If you’re being chased by a grizzly or black bear, it takes a whole lot more than a BB gun to put one down. Since I’m a little old school when it comes to weapons, I opt for a Marlin 1895 in .450 or .45-70. It would do the trick just fine at close range. So what does any of this have to do with the price of eggs, or Russia for that matter?
Sure, the new sanctions are somewhat more targeted than those announced in March 2014, however, it is nearly not enough to stop the Kremlin – the bear – from further destabilizing the Ukraine, and beyond. The new sanctions are supposed to punish Russian energy companies, and others, by restricting new financing. It does not block them from continuing to do business with U.S. entities, the more traditional form of sanctions that can pack a whole lot more punch.
In her 2006 doctoral dissertation my better half, Yleem, adds this reference to Niccolò Machiavelli that is useful when considering what is taking place in that part of the world these days:
Political disorders, when recognized well in advanced … can be quickly healed; when, for lack of diagnosis, they are allowed to “grow till anyone can recognize them, there is no longer a remedy.”
If you’re going to use economic sanctions to support a foreign policy goal you first, well, need a clear and articulable goal. And here is the problem with the Obama Administration, it has none when it comes to Russia. Economic sanctions are tools, not policies. They are not some political talisman to be waved and thing will, magically, get better. Sanctions, when used, are only as effective as your overall policy goal and, of course, your willingness and ability to implement that vision.
Russia is an adversary, not a regional friend (at least not right now). It has proven time and time again, most dramatically first in 2008 with the invasion of Georgia, and then again earlier this year in the Crimea and Ukraine, that it has a vision to regain territory it lost at the end of the Cold War. If you have any doubt about Russia’s aims, read Vladimir Putin’s March 18, 2014 speech to Russian lawmakers. Among other things worthy of a Cold War era speech, Putin said:
we have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, led in the 18th, 19th and 20thcenturies, continues today. They [the U.S. and Europe] are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position, because we maintain it and because we call things like they are and do not engage in hypocrisy. But there is a limit to everything. And with Ukraine, our western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally …
… Some Western politicians are already threatening us with not just sanctions but also the prospect of increasingly serious problems on the domestic front. I would like to know what it is they have in mind exactly: action by a fifth column, this disparate bunch of ‘national traitors’, or are they hoping to put us in a worsening social and economic situation so as to provoke public discontent? We consider such statements irresponsible and clearly aggressive in tone, and we will respond to them accordingly.
Putin sounded like Nikita Khrushchev, minus the bluster.
President Obama thinks he and his advisors can resolve this matter with diplomacy and sanctions. Forget it. That is not anchored in reality, nor is it an appropriate response to Russia’s aggression on Europe’s eastern flank. Yes, Putin’s tough talk is part bravado, but he’s also dead serious about carving out a larger sphere of influence. Russia will not stop with the Ukraine unless it feels real pressure from the U.S. and the E.U. Just ask our friends and NATO allies Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania.
Russia has a lot money, a lot of natural resources, and a military that it has demonstrated it is willing to use to advance a foreign policy to counter what it perceives to be threats from the West. The irony is that Russia, if it had a leader with a different world view, has all the ingredients to be a stabilizing and good influence in the part of the world. Today’s Russian leadership is corrupt. Lawlessness is rampant, just as the family of Sergei Magnitsky. Freedom of speech and the press, and respect for human right, are under constant attack, especially if you cross the wrong oligarch or power center.
If you economic sanctions stand any chance of succeeding, the Obama Administration must be open to measures that go beyond economic sanctions focused on helping allies counter Russian political, economic, and diplomatic moves. The sometimes lackadaisical Europeans need to stop dawdling.
There is no need for histrionics, just act in a concerted and focused manner, for a change. Ronald Reagan won the Cold War, in large part, without having to fire a single bullet. Reagan also had a much more complex European map to contend with; today, Obama has many more favorable options to choose from.
The people of the Ukraine want to defend their homeland, give them the tools so they can do so. Ukraine also needs the U.S. and E.U. investors and trade. Flood them with commerce. The Baltics needs security assistance, provide it. Poland wants to be a more active NATO partner, let them and give them the resources to make it so (this includes placing PATRIOT systems, and more, in Poland). The Europeans require new sources of energy, focus on bolstering U.S. production of oil and gas so that the U.S. can offer them another source of energy.
And if you’re going to use economic sanctions, make them count. For starters, temporarily ban the export to Russian companies of U.S. oil and gas exploration technology. Prohibit U.S. companies from engaging in any transactions with Russian companies that do business in places such as Venezuela or Cuba. Expand the Magnitsky list (see embed below) and make fulsome use of targeted sanctions on Russian officials. These and other targeted measures will make Russia think twice before it further destabilizes the region.
One thing is certain about all this, if the U.S. keep firing with BB guns at bear that has been rushing since at least 2008, the world is going to get hurt. Before Russia becomes an enemy, best to start acting as if it were an adversary.