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Politics

Why Putin Isn't Worried About Sanctions

The Russian president won’t feel their effect—but ordinary Russian citizens will.

Matryoshka dolls in the likeness of then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Obama stand on display at a souvenir stall St. Petersburg in 2010.(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When tensions escalated in Eastern Europe last week, President Obama warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that military intervention in Ukraine would lead to "costs."

Now that a Russian parliament-approved incursion into Crimea, a sovereign territory of Ukraine, is well underway, the United States and other world powers are determining exactly what those costs are.

Seven of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations, including the U.S., have suspended preparations for an organization summit in Sochi in June "until the environment comes back where the G-8 is able to have meaningful discussion." Secretary of State John Kerry, who is traveling to Kiev on Tuesday, said economic sanctions and travel restrictions for individual Russian officials are on the table. Some members of Congress are pushing for the president to impose trade sanctions, while others are calling for Russia's immediate expulsion from the G-8.

 

British Prime Minister David Cameron is drawing up his own set of sanctions against Russia, and Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Austria have frozen the assets of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and 19 of his officials on orders from the new Ukrainian government.

Such political reprimands are all well and good for nations that want to avoid any military confrontation with Russia. But they won't quell Russian aggression in Ukraine.

World leaders are boycotting diplomatic discussions and threatening sanctions? Big deal, says the Kremlin.

This weekend, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Obama that Putin sounded out of touch with reality when she spoke with him on the phone. The Russian president, she said, was "in another world."

That's because he is. Right now, Putin has tunnel vision, and it's aimed right at Crimea. At the southwest tip of the peninsula lies Sevastopol, the warm-water port that never freezes over. Sevastopol houses a crucial naval base, leased by Russia from Ukraine, of the Black Sea fleet.

The base signals the end of Russia's military route into the Mediterranean, which makes it a powerful strategic asset for the country. Putin won't give it up without a fight, and sanctions won't change that. Preserving Russian interests reigns supreme. An intervention in Ukraine is undoubtedly risky, but so is losing the base, and by extension Moscow's powerful global standing. For Putin, the fallout from losing the base far outweighs the effects of sanctions and political snubbing.

The Russian president is betting that any sanctions would be relatively short-lived. Pushing Putin too far could be dangerous. Many European nations haven't forgotten about their deep economic ties to Russia, including their dependence on its crude oil and natural-gas exports. For Western Europe, implementing serious economic sanctions would be unwise, as Russia could retaliate by cutting off the gas pipelines that run through Ukraine to Europe. And U.S. sanctions would barely make a dent in the Russian economy: Russia accounts for less than 2 percent of American trade.

So far, Western Europe is sidestepping sanctions. The European Union and the governments of Germany and France have pushed for mediation between Moscow and Kiev, not sanctions. The organization's emergency meeting on Monday is "expected to result in a strongly worded statement of condemnation, but no immediate punitive measures," according to the EurActive Network, which reports E.U. policy news. Any action by the United Nations is unlikely, thanks to Russia's veto power as a permanent member of the Security Council.

The international community can fire off as many warnings as it likes for now. The chances of Putin listening are slim. "Russia was, is, and will be an empire with an eternal appetite for expansion. And it will gather whatever spurious reasons it needs to insulate itself territorially from what it still perceives to be a large and growing NATO threat," writes Julia Ioffe at The New Republic. "Trying to harness Russia with our own logic just makes us miss Putin's next steps."

But if world powers are serious about imposing sanctions against Russia, the time appears to be now. Russia's economy has taken a hit since the standoff in Eastern Europe began in earnest a few weeks ago. On Monday, the Russian stock market fell by 13 percent, and the ruble dropped to a historic low against the dollar. Russia only recently overcame double-digit inflation, Quartz reports, and the plummeting value of the ruble could push inflation back up.

Ultimately, economic sanctions likely won't stop Putin from pushing to secure Crimea for Russian interests. Nor will symbolic penalties and White House phone calls alter the course in Eastern Europe. But the international community's punishments will be felt most acutely by ordinary Russians, many of whom don't want to go to war.

Vladimir Putin's 'Gotcha' Moment

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