Joshua Rovner | What to Say to Russia

This op-ed first appeared in the March 14, 2014, edition of The National Interest. For more information click here.

By Joshua Rovner, Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security, Tower Center

The United States has a powerful interest in stopping the Ukraine crisis from escalating. The Obama administration rightly wants to shift its focus away from Europe and the Middle East and towards China. Restoring Ukraine as a buffer between Russia and Western Europe will help alleviate insecurity on both sides, making it easier to pivot to Asia. On the other hand, conflict in Ukraine will deepen the rift between Russia and the West and make it difficult to cooperate on issues from arms control and counterterrorism to Iran, Syria, and North Korea.

If the administration hopes to make any headway in order to stave off conflict, it needs to convince Vladimir Putin that making a deal is better than making trouble. Specifically, U.S. officials need to deliver a set of reminders, warnings, threats and assurances.

American diplomats should remind Russia that it was much better off before it sent armed forces to Ukraine. If Putin had stayed put, Russia could have maintained a reliable voting bloc in Crimea, which would have been useful given the very close results in recent elections. In addition, Russia could have waited for the inevitable Ukrainian backlash against the West for having to implement IMF austerity measures. It could have avoided a dreadful stock-market and currencyplunge. And Russia could have focused media attention on theshadier characters in the new Ukraine government, rather than diverting media attention by sending its own masked men into the Crimea.

The simple message to Putin is that Russia’s strategic position was quite favorable before it blundered into Ukraine, and he can restore that position if he is willing to back down in the current crisis.

Diplomats should also deliver a simple warning: Things will get worse no matter what Washington does. A formal annexation of Crimea will drive Ukraine closer to NATO and lead European states to balance against Russia. It will validate the far-right parties in Kiev who are most opposed to Russian interests. And it will further discourage investors, especially if they believe that Putin has designs on territories in the east of the country. Russia has put its security as well as its economy at risk, and it stands to lose a great deal more in a prolonged conflict.

To reinforce that point, diplomats may threaten specific sanctions against specific Russians. The utility of economic sanctions partly depends on the nature of the target regime. Sanctions are particularly effective if a foreign leader needs the support of key economic elites; if sanctions target those elites, the leader is more likely to back down. Thus if the Treasury Department can identify a set of elites on whom Putin relies, then the United States may be able to craft sanctions that cause him to reconsider. While sanctions are not a silver bullet, they may be useful in combination with other tools of coercion, and there is some evidence that Putin issensitive to investors.

About Jieun Pyun

AA-Dedman(Tower Center)
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