Can the West Curb Russia's Bad Behavior?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Russian President Vladimir Putin receives military honours during the welcoming ceremony at Planalto Palace in Brasilia on July 14, 2014. (EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty)

This week, European Union officials announced its first round of broad sanctions against Russia since the crisis in Ukraine began. Hours later, President Obama matched his European allies, promising a new round of sanctions to punish the Kremlin for its recent actions in eastern Ukraine.

"Russia is once again isolating itself from the international community, setting back decades of genuine progress," President Obama declared on the White House lawn. "And it doesn't have to come to this. It didn't have to come to this. It does not have to be this way. This is a choice that Russia—and President Putin in particular—has made."

Starting August 1st, the E.U. will severely restrict Russian state bank access to European Union markets, and will enforce an embargo on new arms sales to Russia. The sanctions will also limit Russian access to certain oil technology. As for the United States, President Obama announced more restrictions for Russian banks and plans to match the E.U.'s block on oil technology. 

President Obama insisted that the development was not the ghost of a past conflict.

“It's not a new Cold War," the president said Tuesday while speaking to reporters. "What it is is a very specific issue related to Russia's unwillingness to recognize that Ukraine can chart its own path."

Even though the pressure is mounting from both Europe and the United States, it's possible sanctions may not go far enough. Ambassador Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia from January 2012 to February 2014, says there's more work to be done to curb Russia's bad behavior.

"I think it's the threat of new sanctions that change actors' behaviors," says Ambassador McFaul. "Once the sanctions are implemented, the target usually doubles down and blames those doing sanctions. I think that will happen with Putin, of course."

Though Ambassador McFaul feels that sanctions can help alter the behavior of international players, he does concede that producing such a result takes time.

"It has to effect the economy, it has to effect individuals—both the citizens at large and specific economic interest groups," he says. "And that, judging from other historical experiences, takes years to have that feedback effect. Unfortunately, I think that's what we're in for with Russia."

According to McFaul, the pain of sanctions could be felt both ways.

"It's asymmetric—Russia is just as dependent on Europe, as Europe is dependent on Russian energy supplies," he says. "When it comes to the financial sector, Russia is much weaker than the rest of Europe and the United States. They rely on the dollar and access to capital markets; it's not symmetric. I don't know what's coming next, but most certainly the rhetoric out of every major capital in Europe has changed literally in just the last 48 hours."

As Pieter Feith, a senior Dutch diplomat and former Special Representative for the European Union, explains, the E.U.'s energy dependence on Russia prevented European officials from taking a strong stance.

However, in the weeks following the crash of Malaysian Airlines flight 17, he says E.U. officials started to change their minds. Dutch officials have reported that it's been increasingly difficult to access the site of the passenger jet because the conflict in eastern Ukraine have severely hindered attempts to reach and secure the site.

"Over the past weeks and months, we have witnessed a continued violation of norms and principles by the Russian government," says Feith. "I agree that initially the reaction by European governments was somewhat lackluster. But now they have galvanized, and the sanctions that have been agreed to now are significant. I think everybody agrees—including our captains of industry—there will be no more business as usual for a long time to come. This may also effect our own interests, but we think this is necessary."

Feith says that it is absolutely vital that Putin understands that he must comply with international standards and stop interfering in Ukraine. The Dutch are hurt and angry, says Feith, who says that the people of the Netherlands view the downing of MH17 as a national tragedy.

But what if the majority of passengers on that plane were American? Would the world be seeing a much different response?

"For the Dutch people, this is our own 9/11," says Feith. "If this had happened to the United States, the reaction would have been more forceful. But then again, your economic dependencies and your relationship in terms of trade and investments are less significant than for us in Europe. Secondly, the United States is a sovereign state, a sovereign government, and a single decision-making authority. We are working in a European Union where we try to reach consensus."


Pieter Feith and Michael McFaul

Hosted by:

Todd Zwillich

Produced by:

Ellen Frankman and Jillian Weinberger


T.J. Raphael

Comments [5]

Daniel from Moscow

The idea that sanctions take years and, yet, are designed to create an immediate change in behavior is an example for why they will not work. They will galvanize the population to support President Putin. Most importantly, they have painted him into a corner.

As an Eastern leader, he needs to be provided with a way to back down without losing faith. Unfortunately, Western leaders do not understand this.

For example, the Europeans could acknowledge that they will not allow Ukraine to be in NATO for a meaningful period. This would allow Putin to back down. And since we all now understand that Putin will fight a war to keep NATO from Ukraine, this will cost NATO nothing.

It is hard to understand, too, how a hostile, isolated Russia will help us in the more strategic areas of our foreign policy: China and the middle East.

Jul. 31 2014 11:05 AM
Anton from Russia

1 - the sanctions will influence ordinary people, which cannot support society sympathy to us and eu
2 - talking about 100 (actually, 300)'s terrible. ...but, mr Feith, you are proving the sanctions accusing Russia on the tragedy! Provide with evidence, supporting it..
3 - ...and we are ordinary people cannot influence on the situation ... And country's political actions ... Imagine - it all (sanctions) against you...

Jul. 30 2014 11:25 PM
bob koch from west palm beach, fl

I don't understand why sanctions aren't done in private instead of in the media. Won't Putin look weak to suddenly proclaim "ok you're right and I'm wrong"? Public shame won't stop bad behavior.

Jul. 30 2014 01:09 PM
Caroline from NJ/USA

The answer to the question: Can the West Curb Russia's Bad Behavior?
Is, no. The reason is because, dictator-leaders do not care what happens to their people, they only care about their self-perceived power.

You might say Putin was elected, but his is not a democratic country, not really, and he hates that Ukraine has independence, and might gain their own strength within a democratic system. Putin, and all dictators are very fear-ridden people who bully their own people and everyone around them in order to "look" good.

If the plane had been full of citizens from USA, Putin would have only gained popularity in Russia, and puffed himself up. He'd love to drain the US and Europe of resources by making war - like G.W. Bush, Putin would be saying, "Bring it on." It's not smart to bite with a war against, Putin or any dictator (think al Assad)- their armies are fodder. Not to say hawks like Bush, (and more and more, McCain) don't also think little for lives of citizens. (Think VA mess.) So it goes for time in memorial, men are units-expendable by president-kings, and sometimes ruthless queens.

Jul. 30 2014 12:55 PM
Michelangelo from Miami FL

That's a good question: What would have happened if there were 100 Americans on that Malaysian flight?

What if it was an American airliner?

Jul. 30 2014 09:22 AM

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