When Vladimir Putin formally annexed Crimea this week, he acted in defiance of the predictions of many pundits, politicians and so-called experts. Perhaps Putin was not impressed by their sound reasoning and elegant discourse on how his invasion and annexation threatened Russia’s interests. But the main problem with the West’s “Putin would never” arguments is that they assume Putin and his ruling elite care about Russian national interests. They do not, except in the few areas where such interests overlap with their goal of looting as much treasure as possible. It is long past time to stop listening to professors’ lectures about what Putin would never do and high time to respond to what he does — before he does it again.
The next obstacle to stopping Putin is the self-imposed paralysis of the leaders of Europe and the Group of Seven. It is easier for them to say that there is nothing they can do to check Putin’s ambitions than to admit that they lack the courage to act. Putin keeps raising the stakes, and the West just keeps folding. There are plenty of levers available to apply pressure on Putin, but they require confronting several hard truths. And this is a generation of political leaders accustomed to telling citizens that it is possible to both cut taxes and spend more, to be free and be safe, to be a great power without ever using power.
Obama repeated this mistake on Wednesday when he said that the United States would not send troops to defend Ukraine. Nobody was asking for troops, and Obama probably thinks he is defusing tensions. But where Obama sees a gesture of peaceful intent, Putin sees more weakness. To Putin, his opponent freely surrendered one of his greatest advantages: America’s overwhelming military strength. On Iran, on Syria and now regarding Ukraine, Obama has outsourced his foreign policy to Putin and, in so doing, has crippled the power of his office in ways that will long outlast his White House tenure.
The second hard truth is that there is no dealing with Putin, no mutually beneficial business as usual. He exploits every opening and feels no obligation to operate by the rule of law or human rights in or outside of Russia. Putin is a lost cause, and Russia also will be until he is gone. The West has been in denial about this for far too long, from George W. Bush’s infamous look into Putin’s soul to the Obama administration’s waste of four years on a “reset” with Russia that existed mostly as an American photo-op, not in lasting policy changes. It has always been an error to treat Putin like any other leader; now, there are no more excuses.
Putin won’t back down, or be kicked out, until credible threats to his power create a split among his elites and advisers. Right now they have no incentive to bet against him. Putin protects them and their assets while the free world they enjoy living in has made no moves that would force them to choose between their riches and Putin. Changing that calculus is the only way to protect Ukraine and wherever Putin next creates enemies to feed into his propaganda machine.
Obama and Europe’s leaders keep trying to play by the rules even though Putin has ripped up the rule book and thrown the shreds in their faces. Kremlin elites were right to laugh at Western sanctions Monday on a few of Putin’s political hacks — the step was a joke. The laughter in Moscow surely died down on Thursday, when Obama personally made a stronger statement and announced new sanctions against oligarchs and assets that matter to Putin. Even better was Obama’s threat to sign new orders allowing stiffer penalties to a legal framework that Putin’s allies know how to exploit. This tells Putin that the West can change the rules, too. Now it is a question of resolve, of following this good first step with a second and third until Putin backs down.
Western leaders would be wise to follow the money: Sanction the elites who support Putin, go after the family members they use to hide their assets abroad and scrutinize their companies. If existing laws are inadequate to deal with billionaire thugs who enable a dangerous regime, write new ones. And do all this quickly, because the price to remove Putin goes up with every delay. Eventually, that price will be paid not just in the cash Western countries are afraid to lose but also in human lives.