, Salem, MA

March 26, 2014

Our view: Strengthen economic sanctions against Russia

The Salem News

---- — As the game of brinkmanship over Russia’s seizure of the Crimea continues to escalate, we are seeing the same kinds of weakness and waffling that characterized the Allies before the outbreak of World War II.

These are clearly different circumstances, and different political characters, than those on the world stage in 1938 and 1939. But some of the same motivations exist on the aggressor’s side — a quest for resources and power, the settling of long-simmering disputes, and the raw exercise of military and political aggression. President Obama is right to say that the dispute is not worth fighting a war over, but it is worth fighting a more aggressive campaign of economic sanctions over.

Russia’s seizure of the Crimea last month was the latest chapter in the political turmoil in Ukraine, a large independent nation on Russia’s western border. Ukraine struggled with a square-off between pro-Russia and pro-European Union forces, and the latter side won. Russia immediately swooped in to seize Crimea, a strategically important peninsula in the Black Sea that had long served as a crucial naval base.

Obama has received significant criticism for his response to the seizure — America has placed economic sanctions on a handful of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest political allies. But the United States hasn’t put any pressure on the impressive number of Russian multimillionaires and billionaires who have taken up residence in London’s fashionable Kensington addresses, the people driving much of Russia’s economic engine. Nor has it sought to broadly spread the sanctions to cause real economic harm, as it did in 1989 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

The European powers’ response has been far flimsier. Motivated by their reluctance to see Russia retaliate, Europe has mostly hidden behind Uncle Sam’s legs.

There seems to be little doubt that Putin relishes the thought of a strengthened and aggressive Russia. The former Soviet KGB agent is just barely old enough to remember the “good ol’ days” when the Soviet Union’s immense power made lesser nations shake in their boots. Yet, there is enough of the old Soviet hubris in him to yearn for some piece of those days.

And he has it. Russians responded enthusiastically to his stirring, patriotic speech last week regarding Crimea. He is a shrewd politician.

But the bottom line is the seizure was illegal, even by standards set in Russian law. Putin needs to be more aggressively challenged on this, through more robust economic sanctions.

Russia has plenty of disputes with its neighbors, more scores that could be settled. And it has the legacy of the Soviet Union, a not-so-long-ago empire that placed Russia at the very small front row of world powers. Putin has come away from his Crimea grab with his knuckles barely rapped. It must have him thinking what else he can get away with, especially if he has the Russian people supporting him.

When looking at the long term, it seems reasonable that Russia could claim a stake for Crimea. Historically, the region had been part of Russia until political maneuvers within the Soviet hierarchy annexed it to Ukraine in the 1950s. But the phony “vote” for annexation to Russia, and the military takeover, were not the proper way to settle this dispute.