Later today, the G-7 will meet on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in the Netherlands to figure out a coordinated response to the Russian annexation of Crimea. Barack Obama pledged that Russia would suffer “a cost” for its “actions” and that the leaders of Europe and the US are united in that effort. So far, though, Obama appears to be significantly in front of his colleagues on the cost-imposition effort:
President Obama vowed Russia would “pay a price” for its annexation of Crimea as he kicked off a week of talks with European leaders focused largely on the crisis in Ukraine.
“Europe and America are united in our support of the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian people,” Obama said. “We are united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far.”
Obama noted that he and other leaders of the G-8 — minus representatives from the Kremlin — will meet later Monday, and are expected to consider permanently expelling Russia from the economic group. The world leaders are also expected to discuss additional economic penalties for Russia in response to its aggression in the region.
“Prime Minister Rutte rightly pointed out yesterday the growing sanctions would bring significant consequences to the Russian economy,” Obama said. “And I’ll be meeting with my fellow G-7 leaders later today, and we’ll continue to coordinate closely with the Netherlands and our European partners as we go forward.”
Rutte said both leaders saw Russia’s moves in Crimea “as a flagrant breach of international law, and we condemn its actions in the strongest possible terms.”
The problem thus far with the effort is that it seems to be mainly American in nature. The EU has imposed sanctions, but they lag in impact behind the second round of penalties Obama announced late last week. Even those have only limited impact on the Russian economy, and Moscow isn’t taking them all that seriously at the moment. The West has not frozen assets of Russian companies, although they have limited access to certain individuals, and Russia is still in the G-8. In fact, at least officially, the G-8 is still scheduled to meet in Sochi, not far from Crimea, in June.
Europe has a lot more to lose in a trade war with Russia, of course. But they have more to lose with newly-invigorated Russian aggression and expansionism, too. Already, the Baltic states are expecting unrest among ethnic-Russian enclaves, and a move there would be a direct challenge to NATO:
“I mean if you are a Baltic country, where we have 40 percent of people speaking Russian, you are not very comfortable these days,” said an EU official, who asked to remain anonymous.
“I would not be surprised if we are now going to see troops of some of our member states in some of these countries.”
Russian speakers make up about 35 percent of Latvia’s 2 million population. In Estonia, around a quarter of its 1.3 million people are Russian speakers. In neighbouring Lithuania, which does not border Russia, ethnic Russians make up about 6 percent.
The three Baltic states are all NATO members, and Lithuania will be the last of them to adopt the euro currency next year as the three lean towards the West, but they are also hugely dependent on energy from Russia and have strong trade ties.
Some fear their Russian enclaves could be geopolitical flashpoints, potentially manipulated by President Vladimir Putin to destabilise the region. Moscow has long complained about the rights of ethnic Russians in the Baltics.
Obama has to convince his European allies to get tougher on sanctions. No one has the stomach for war to prevent the rest of Ukraine from being overrun by Russia, nor could the West organize a military response to stop it short of threatening nuclear war — the logistics for a conventional-weapons defense are impossible, and the value of Ukraine to the West doesn’t merit the attempt. That calculation would change for Baltic states and perhaps for Moldova as well, but the first line of defense has to be to freeze Russia in place by economic sanctions. A handful of personal sanctions is not going to do it, and Obama has to find a way to get Europe to get past its need for Russian energy in order to get tougher sanctions in place to stop Vladimir Putin from rolling forward in Ukraine.
Obama may have a tougher time overcoming skepticism at home, even in the American media. John King leads this CNN panel from earlier today, noting with a touch of scorn that Obama promised to “unite the world and have better international diplomacy than George W. Bush,” asking the panel that Obama really doesn’t have good options in this case. Bloomberg’s Margaret Talev laughs at Obama’s “reset” and says the White House didn’t see the problem coming “until it was almost too late”:
Almost? NATO doesn’t think it was “almost,” not in its current estimate:
U.S. and Ukrainian officials warned Sunday that Russia may be poised to expand its territorial conquest into eastern Ukraine and beyond, with a senior NATO official saying that Moscow might even order its troops to cross Ukraine to reach Moldova. …
In Brussels, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, said Russia had assembled a large force on Ukraine’s eastern border that could be planning to head for Moldova’s separatist Transnistria region, more than 300 miles away.
Ukrainian officials have been warning for weeks that Russia is trying to provoke a conflict in eastern Ukraine, a charge that Russia denies. But Breedlove said Russian ambitions do not stop there.
“There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transnistria if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome,” Breedlove said.
Ukraine Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia warned that Russia was trying to provoke Ukraine into a response that would justify war, and that Ukraine was determined not to provide one. But don’t expect Russian tanks to stop at the Dniepr, which means that Europe had better act quickly to provide economic deterrents to more action.