That was President Obama speaking in Manila on Monday, shortly before the United States
against Russian government officials and companies linked to Vladimir Putin. With the crisis in eastern Ukraine still escalating—just today, the mayor of Kharkiv, a city that had previously been pretty calm, was
, leaving him critically wounded—the Obama Administration clearly felt obliged to punish Putin for failing to follow through on the deal reached in Geneva a couple of weeks ago. (The agreement stated, explicitly, “All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.”)
But, if the previous round of sanctions—which extended travel bans and asset freezes to a number of people and institutions close to Putin—did not change Putin’s behavior, it’s questionable whether these new measures, which are basically more of the same, will have much impact. Indeed, Putin’s failure to rein in the pro-Russian forces that have seized buildings in Donetsk and other cities raises three disturbing possibilities: first, that he is not fully in control of the local militants; second, that his cost-benefit analysis doesn’t weigh the economic costs imposed by the sanctions very highly; and third, that he’s not the wily rational actor everybody has assumed him to be. He might be something else.
From this distance, it’s impossible to say how much power the Kremlin is exerting over the gun-toting men in black masks—who, on Sunday, seized control of a television station in Donetsk, and replaced its Ukrainian programming with Russian channels that routinely refer to the leaders in Kiev as “fascists.” Most Western observers, myself included, are assuming that the Kremlin is orchestrating things. But that might not be the full story. Many Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine are clearly angry at the Ukrainian government’s counter-offensive in the city of Sloviansk and other areas, which has led to a number of deaths. History shows that this is how sectarian conflicts escalate—tit for tat—and once they get going it’s hard for any outsider to fully control them, even Putin.
If the Russian leader was always intent on extending his “Sudetenland strategy” from the Crimea to eastern Ukraine, why did he sign on to the Geneva agreement? The common interpretation at the time was that Putin, having bested the West in Crimea and seen his approval ratings hit eighty per cent, was preparing to consolidate his gains while avoiding an extension of sanctions that are already having an impact. Since the start of the year, the Moscow stock market has fallen sharply, and overseas investors have withdrawn about seventy billion dollars in capital from Russia. The ruble has come under pressure and inflation has risen, which has prompted the central bank to raise interest rates twice, most recently just last week. The World Bank and other observers have warned that a recession is now quite probable. Surely, Putin wouldn’t risk making things even worse?
But he just did. By ordering military exercises to resume near the Ukrainian border, he seems to be threatening a rerun of the 2008 war with Georgia, when he used the pretext of a Georgian offensive against South Ossetian rebels to send in Russia troops. In economic terms, invading eastern Ukraine makes little sense. The region has large reserves of iron ore, coal, and manganese, but Russia doesn’t need them: it has plenty of its own minerals. In return for taking over a decaying industrial area with a population of about fifteen million people, Russia would face further sanctions; it would be internationally isolated; and it would gain another hostile neighbor, the rest of Ukraine, which would surely be invited to join NATO.
What’s the upside for Putin? In his mind, he might think he would take another step toward restoring the “greater Russia” that the tsars created, and which, in his mind, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin squandered. In a press conference a couple of weeks ago, he reminded his audience that much of eastern Ukraine used to be part of Novorossiya—New Russia—which, during the late eighteenth century, the forces of Catherine the Great seized from the Ottoman Empire. “It’s Novorossiya,” Putin said. “Kharkiv, Lugansk, Donetsk, Odessa were not part of Ukraine in tsarist times, they were transferred in 1920. Why? God knows.”
Visiting Washington last week, Tomasz Siemoniak, Poland’s defense minister, warned that Putin might have designs on other former parts of greater Russia, too, such as Poland and the Baltic states. In one way that sounds alarmist: these countries are already part of NATO, and any effort to bring them back under Russian control would surely lead to war. But Siemoniak sort of had a point. Putin is a Russian nationalist through and through, and, historically, an important part of Russian nationalism has been expansionism. When you are dealing with a something as combustible as that, you can’t always rely on rational behavior to prevail.