Unity crucial in Ukraine crisis
The New York Times said the following in an editorial:
The United States and the European Union announced another round of sanctions against Russia
on Monday and Tuesday: the Americans against Russians close to President Vladimir Putin, including the president of the state-owned oil company Rosneft; and the Europeans against senior Russian officials and secessionist leaders in Ukraine. The stated reason is that Russia has fulfilled none of the commitments it made at a meeting with Ukraine, the United States and the European Union
in Geneva on April 17, and that Russia’s “involvement in the recent violence in eastern Ukraine is indisputable.”
The action is justified, and for all of Mr. Putin’s bluster, the economic uncertainty generated by sanctions is accelerating Russia’s slide to recession. The same Russians who are cheering Mr. Putin on are rushing to get their money out of Russia. On Friday, citing the capital flight, Standard & Poor’s cut Russia’s credit rating to a notch above junk. Moreover, powerful Russians like Igor Sechin, Rosneft’s president, like to see themselves as globe-trotting chief executives, and not as Putin cronies.
Yet given Mr. Putin’s demonstrative disdain for the Geneva agreements, along with the aggressive behavior of Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s borders and the continued occupation of administrative and security buildings in southeastern Ukrainian cities by Moscow-directed secessionists, such targeted penalties are not likely to change Russia’s behavior. And the sort that would — coordinated United States-European Union sanctions on financial institutions, the energy sector or defense industries — have proved very difficult to construct, largely because of the substantial difference between American and European exposure to Russia’s economy.
About a quarter of the European Union’s gas supplies come from Russia, and despite years of talk about reducing this dependence, little has been done. European Union trade with Russia, moreover, amounted to almost $370 billion in 2012, compared with United States-Russia trade of $26 billion. This includes some huge sales, like the two helicopter carriers France is building for the Russian Navy as part of a $1.6 billion deal signed in 2011. What that means is that any sanctions that really bite will cost Europe a lot more than the United States.
But there will be other costs if Europe and America do not join in a unified response. Among other things, a weak and fragmented response would call into question a long-standing trans-Atlantic commitment to protect international law and democratic values against the kind of aggression Mr. Putin is engaging in. And optics here are important: The decision of Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor, to meet with Mr. Putin on Monday in St. Petersburg and embrace him in a bear hug sent an unacceptable signal that some prominent Europeans are willing to ignore Mr. Putin’s brutish ways.
One result has been pressure on President Obama, largely from Republicans in Congress but also within his own administration, to act unilaterally. That would be a mistake, and Mr. Obama has been right to maintain a unified front with the Europeans even if that has slowed and weakened the response. As he correctly told reporters in Asia, if America were to block certain arms sales to Russia unilaterally, European contractors would simply move in.
Acting separately would also fit into Mr. Putin’s efforts to split the United States from Europe, and East Europeans from West Europeans, by consistently painting the United States as the orchestrator of discord in Ukraine. But Ukraine is very much a European crisis. It was an accession treaty offered by the European Union that touched off the current crisis, and it is the European Union’s eastern members who are most threatened by Mr. Putin’s efforts to revise the post-Cold War order.
Europe’s concern over the economic repercussions of broader economic sanctions are understandable. But that should not lead to any myopia about the danger Mr. Putin poses and the need to rein him in. His authoritarian behavior at home, his disdain for the Geneva agreement and, most recently, the capture of a European military observer mission in Slovyansk should persuade all European leaders that, as Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany told the magazine Spiegel, “We’ve slid into the worst crisis since the end of the Cold War.” That crisis will only get worse unless the West is prepared to unite behind serious economic sanctions that hurt Russia’s financial, energy and military sectors.