By all accounts, Vladimir Putin appears to be winning. Over the past month, Russia’s wily president has managed to orchestrate the asymmetric invasion of a neighboring state (Ukraine) and annex a new territory into the Russian Federation (Crimea). In the process, he has presented the first serious challenge to the post–Cold War political order in Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago. The real question now, say defense analysts such as Pavel Baev of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, is whether the Kremlin has the “guns” and the “guts” to keep pursuing his neo-imperial ambitions.
On the first score, the answer is unclear. Moscow has already forward deployed considerable forces along its common border with Ukraine — perhaps as many as 100,000 troops, if Ukrainian estimates are to be believed. Even so, Ukraine is far larger in size than is Crimea, and a Russian incursion into the latter could prove difficult because of topography, as well as the shortcomings of the Russian military itself. That may be why Russian officials have begun calling for a “federalization” of Ukraine as a way to forestall further military action. If accepted, such a proposal would give the Kremlin what it wants — a lasting erosion of Ukrainian sovereignty — without further shots being fired.
On the second, however, the record is more obvious — and ominous. For years, Russian president Vladimir Putin has nurtured the idea that Russia must reclaim lands lost in the “catastrophe” that was the collapse of the USSR. He has done so, moreover, with broad support from the Russian electorate, among which the idea of derzhavnost — Russia’s destiny as a great power — continues to predominate. The direction of Russian policy, therefore, should not have come as a surprise, although the rapidity with which Russia succeeded in coopting Crimea undoubtedly was.
Russia, moreover, has done so mostly cost-free. Divided and irresolute, the United States and European powers haven’t marshaled the requisite political will to push back. And because they have not, the conversation over Russia’s aggression has changed fundamentally. Crimea’s disposition is now no longer in question; it is difficult to conceive of a scenario in which Russia relinquishes control over the region, or one in which the West forces it to do so. Rather, the question now is what exactly the United States and Europe can do to deter more of the same.
Both Europe and the United States have already levied preliminary sanctions against select Russian decisionmakers. But much more can still be done to turn the economic screws on the Kremlin, from broad asset freezes to Russia’s systematic exclusion from international financial institutions. There’s good reason to think such pressure would have a real effect; Russia’s initial incursion into Crimea prompted a massive downturn in the country’s financial markets and a significant acceleration of capital flight. Things have stabilized somewhat since, but additional pressure from the West is bound to have a real and pronounced impact on Russia’s economic fortunes — and, hopefully, on its foreign adventurism as well.
But sanctions alone are not enough. Western economic pressure must be matched by U.S. and European assistance to Ukraine’s military (something now being debated by the U.S. Congress), and by stronger security guarantees to the Baltic states, who see themselves squarely in Russia’s crosshairs. Washington likewise would do well to revisit its now-moribund plans for missile defenses in Europe — but this time do so not just as a counter to Iran’s strategic arsenal but as a hedge against Russian aggression as well.
Whatever the particulars, the approach adopted by the U.S. and Europe must be informed by the realization that they are playing a long game, one in which the key is not simply deterring further Russian aggression in the near term, but convincing the Kremlin that its neo-imperial moves will leave it worse off in the long run. Otherwise, Russia’s annexation of Crimea won’t be the end of the story, but just the opening salvo of a new period of strife in Europe.
— Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.