BERLIN — Moscow’s troops have now crossed over the border and invaded Ukraine, with reports of direct fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces. And so, after this massive breach of international law, why does the West need another whole week to decide on further sanctions?
Very simple: The more aggressively Putin acts, the deeper go the cracks within the European Union on the subject of sanctions. Some member states are beginning to doubt that new, harder sanctions, for example in the energy sector, could ever move the Russian president to back off.
This faction, to which German Chancellor Angela Merkel belongs, wants to prevent — as much as possible — irritating Putin by piling on extra pressure. But at the same time, the Eastern Europeans are pushing ever more strongly for sharper sanctions against Russia that would possibly also affect arms deliveries. The perception of the eastern EU countries is that Putin only responds to pressure.
Putin’s aggressiveness and intransigence have taken Europeans by surprise; he’s pushed them into a corner. The EU is clueless, exasperated, trapped. The search for a compromise within the Union is actually getting harder as time passes. On the other hand, everybody knows that something must be done, if only to save face. Military force is not an option, talks don’t help, so only sanctions remain.
The next objective?
But what purpose do they serve? It is becoming ever clearer that Moscow is prepared to pay any price to bring eastern Ukraine into its sphere of influence. Sanctions are probably not going to change that. In addition, the more the West’s punitive measures affect ordinary Russians, the greater the potential for Putin to spin the myth that the Ukraine conflict is a decisive battle for the sake of the nation.
New sanctions of some sort against Russia are inevitable — they are a minimum in any compromise. But especially in southern European countries there is the worry that hard economic sanctions against Moscow could affect their own faltering economies, causing job loss and driving energy costs up.
Putin is betting on that. So far he’s always been one step ahead, and all signs point to his presence on the global stage for the foreseeable future.
The battle over eastern Ukraine has all the makings of a very long, drawn-out conflict. Examples abound in the region. Putin’s goal is over time to wear Ukraine out so that he can better push through his vision for “sovereignty” in the eastern regions.
The West, by all accounts, is ultimately powerless against this scenario in Ukraine. The more relevant question now may be whether Putin is also ready to run the risk of pursuing his ominous way into NATO countries, like Estonia and Latvia.