Wait a little while and Putin's Crimea gambit may blow up in his face.
There are limits to American power. Unfortunately, that's becoming increasingly visible to many of those over whom we would most like to exert it. Vladimir Putin appears to have recognized this. And that's largely why he's pressed ahead with his referendum — the results long pre-ordained — over whether Crimea should join Russia as its newest fiefdom. Putin has long believed in balancing very carefully risk vs reward. It's time we learned the same lesson. Patience may well turn out to be its own reward.
A central part of this calculus involves just how far our power to influence extends these days — or at least, how much suasion can we bring to bear over those whose actions we might seek to influence. In ascending order of potency, there are bureaucratic bumps in the road along the lines of withholding visas or freezing assets of Russian officials, friends and family; outright embargos on Russian exports, especially oil and gas; and finally direct or indirect military confrontation on land, sea or air.
Each, of course, carries potential risks in terms of effectiveness and collateral damage. Each action has been tried in other locations with quite mixed results. The problem in the case of Crimea, as we face the immediate results of the referendum, that there's little time for any of these measures to work with any real effectiveness.
Freezing visas or assets is perhaps the most quickly and easily implemented, but relies on the ability of such actions to influence their targets, many of whom have already taken precautions to limit their effectiveness. Reports circulated in bond markets Friday that $105 billion, ten times the weekly average — evaporated from the stash of the New York Federal Reserve, which holds such securities for foreign governments. Russians may be repositioning their overseas assets out of range of American authorities.
The next level up are sanctions that seem to have worked in Iran and, earlier, in South Africa. Still, those took years to cause sufficient grassroots discomfort to influence the policies of these nations' leaderships. Moreover, Iran and South Africa are far less closely tied economically to Western Europe and the United States than Russia. In the oil and gas field, there are substantial joint ventures in exploration and production between Exxon Mobile, Shell, Chevron and Russian partners like Rosneft and Gazprom . The French dairy group Danone had 11% of its worldwide sales in the Russian market last year, while Citibank has 3,000 employees, retail branches and 450 ATMs in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
None of these western companies would especially enjoy having their operations dismantled under an extensive set of sanctions. Russian could also turn off the taps of the vast quantities of oil and gas it supplies to customers across Western Europe. So some West European countries are lukewarm in their support of sanctions against their immense neighbor. Given the length of time they took to move Iran, the odds are against such a system working quickly on our equally implacable foe in the Kremlin.
The ultimate measure is military action. The United States has the guided-missile destroyer Truxtun, on patrol in the Black Sea. But how prepared are Americans or fellow NATO members to commit themselves to an armed confrontation with a major nuclear power? Britain bowed out of an offshore cruise missile attack on Syria — only France among America's West European allies considered such a move. That's hardly lost on Putin.
So here we stand. Toe-to-toe, Crimea firmly in Putin's grasp — just as he succeeded in snatching two slivers of Georgia eight years ago with few consequences. It's time, perhaps, that we began to gauge risk versus reward. Four years ago, Putin's anointed Ukrainian leader, Viktor Yanukovych beat his pro-Western foe by 900,000 votes. Sunday, Ukraine shed 2 million largely Russian sympathizers in Crimea. The next national ballot could send the whole nation over to our side before long. All we really need is patience and wisdom.
David A. Andelman, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, is editor in chief of World Policy Journal and author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.
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