Tougher Sanctions Now: Putin’s Delusional Quest for Empire

This spring, as Russia’s puppet government in Crimea moved clocks forward two hours to coincide with Moscow time, Vladimir Putin seemed intent on moving the historical clock backwards to the age of nineteenth-century Russian imperialism. As the leader of an economically weak and vulnerable country with a corrupt governing class, the Russian president acted with brazen disregard for international law and norms, while the democratic West played a totally reactive role, and a feckless one at that. Ignoring very reluctantly introduced, and very limited, sanctions, Putin reciprocated with utter contempt for capitalist democracies, where he believes profits will always trump principle, and especially for President Obama, who, in the Russian dictator’s view, finds Western unity only in weakness, not in strength. But even though what appear to be irreversible faits accomplis occur every day in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, it is not too late for the West to seize the initiative, mobilize its vast economic and political capacity, and put Putin and the “yes” chorus of siloviki, who surround and encourage him, truly on the defensive.

What is presently taking place in the region may seem self-contained, but there is actually a great deal at stake politically, economically, and strategically for the international community. The window for effective action, moreover, is quickly closing. The West needs to understand this, and be willing to make certain painful sacrifices, if it is to bring in effective sanctions against Putin and disabuse him of his delusional and dangerous imperial ambitions. If the present course of weakly and incoherently reacting to Russia’s initiatives continues to be pursued, the world, and ultimately even the Russian people, will very likely pay an immeasurably heavier price in terms of chaos and conflict in the future.


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Part of figuring out how to deal with Putin involves understanding not only what he is doing but what he thinks he is doing. This is a matter of some speculation among world leaders. Angela Merkel, the measured German chancellor, let it be known following conversations with Putin during the initial crisis that she felt that he was out of touch with reality. Similarly, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has characterized Putin’s current actions as delusionary. I myself have argued elsewhere that his domestic policies represent a kind of “political magical realism,” combining the fantastic with the real (with the emphasis increasingly on the former) as a substitute for rational political and economic policy, resulting in a political order that is simultaneously repressive and risible. In the Crimea and Ukraine, Putin may be acting out of a certain disorientation as a result of the definitive nature of the Maidan movement’s rejection of his Eurasian Union, which he felt he had secured by alliance with the now decamped Yanukovych government in Kyiv, and its strong embrace of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership. Without Ukraine, Putin has little hope of rebuilding the Russian Empire and once again attaining superpower status.

It would be a mistake to think of his imperial dreams as backed by a master plan. Putin may be bumbling and reckless in some regards, but he has revealed himself as a master at seizing the main chance. Rather than carefully blueprinting a realistic Russian future, it seems that he has bought into former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov’s dream of imitating the nineteenth-century Russian chancellor Alexander Gorchakov’s success in restoring Russia’s great-power status following Moscow’s defeat in the Crimean War. Gorchakov’s adroit use of maneuver, and exploitation of differences among rivaling states on Russia’s borders, however, occurred in a different world, and involved a subtlety that Putin’s invasion of the Crimea shows he has not bothered to cultivate. He wants to rebuild what he considers nineteenth-century Russia’s grandeur in the former Soviet space, but he doesn’t want to acknowledge the obstacle to such a desire posed by Russia’s failing economic monoculture, the corrosiveness of his country’s endemic corruption, or the fact that, while he might manage to swallow Ukraine, actually digesting its political activism would, ironically, deeply threaten his hold on power.


Russia’s stark violation of Ukrainian sovereignty in annexing Crimea is not just a frontal offense against international law and norms but a long-term threat to the entire international system—from the regional level to the global. Russia lacks the Soviet Union’s universalistic ideology and vast military power, but even though this is not a new cold war, Putin’s aggressiveness has profoundly dangerous implications. The invasion was a setback in the effort to control nuclear proliferation. Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, visiting the Ukrainian capital on March 22nd, correctly pointed out that Ukraine had agreed, in 1994, via the Budapest Memorandum, to give up its nuclear weapons in return for guarantees of its sovereignty by Russia and Western powers. In breaching the explicit Russian guarantee of Ukraine’s territorial integrity (including Crimea), Harper declared, “President Putin has provided a rationale for those elsewhere who needed little more encouragement than that already furnished by pride or grievance to arm themselves to the teeth.” It is doubtful that Russia would have dared invade Crimea had Kyiv retained its nuclear weapons, and equally unlikely that this lesson is lost on Iran and other nuclear aspirants. Also, because of the weakness of the Western and especially the American response, the invasion of Crimea will become an object lesson for China and countries in the Middle East about what is permissible on the world stage. Coming at a time of reduced military budgets in Washington, Obama’s vaunted pivot to Asia, designed to deal with an increasingly assertive China, is beginning to look more like a comic pirouette. Middle Eastern states from Israel to Saudi Arabia are likely to be forced to re-examine the credibility of American military commitments—as are American allies everywhere.

By generating crisis in Ukraine, Putin has validated his strategy of “frozen conflicts,” which he used in Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia and Abkhazia to manipulate or threaten (or both) Moldova, Armenia, and Georgia, respectively. Moscow, for all intents and purposes, has already annexed South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In Transnistria, an unrecognized breakaway region of Moldova run by a thuggish dictatorship protected by Russian troops, Moscow has been making ominous threats—all under the rubric of protecting Russian-speaking peoples. Russia’s ultranationalist deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, falsely claimed on March 18th that Transnistria was under “blockade” by Ukraine and warned Moldova against signing the Eastern Partnership agreement with the EU, which Moldova had initialed last fall. Much to NATO’s alarm, Transnistria’s leadership has itself called for annexation to Russia. Further, on May 9th, Victory Day for the Red Army against Nazi Germany, Rogozin flew to Transnistria, threatened to wipe out fascism with “a bullet in the head,” and, after claiming that Romania and Ukraine had refused his aircraft transit in their airspace (despite safely returning to Moscow on May 10th), he threateningly tweeted that the next time he would “fly a TU-160” bomber to Moldova’s breakaway region. It is little wonder that Romanian and Moldovan leaders have urged the EU to offer Moldova membership to provide the country with security.

In the case of Armenia, Moscow was able to use the threat of withdrawing its support regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, a largely Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, to induce the Armenians to abruptly switch policy, from joining the Eastern Partnership with the EU to starting the process of becoming part of the Kremlin-controlled Eurasian Union.

In sum, Moscow has been able to “unfreeze” these “frozen” conflicts at will to pressure and bully various post-Soviet republics. All this has been part of the larger Kremlin goal of re-creating a Russian-controlled empire within the former Soviet space.


In their strong desire for a non-confrontational solution to Russian aggression in Crimea, especially one that does not challenge Putin directly, a number of prominent Western analysts have increasingly talked about federalizing or “Finlandizing” Ukraine. Leaving aside the rather dubious moral and historical logic of comparing Ukraine to Finland (Helsinki entered the war against Stalin on June 26, 1941—four days after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union—as a co-belligerent), “Finlandization” is not likely to work in Ukraine for two key reasons.

First, Ukraine, a country of some forty-four million (even without Crimea), an innocent victim of aggression, has clearly chosen Europeanization and modernization, which many of its citizens paid for with their lives at the Maidan. The Kremlin, playing on the fears of some Russian speakers in eastern and southern Ukraine, cannot delete this aspiration, regardless of its intensive propaganda and provocations. It is also highly unlikely that the people of Ukraine, therefore, would accept the additional humiliation of the censorship and self-censorship that Finland had to live with following Helsinki’s coerced signing of the “Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance” with the Soviet Union in 1948, which involved banning books and movies that were deemed anti-Soviet. More importantly, despite its political humiliation, Finland enjoyed a very large degree of economic and legal freedom that the Kremlin would be unlikely to tolerate in a “Finlandized” Ukraine. The current crisis is not about Ukraine joining NATO, a move for which there is no great public demand. Rather it is about the possibility that Ukraine would reject integration into the Eurasian Union, which is key to Putin’s fantasies of rebuilding a Russian Empire. He could not accept the possibility of a successful, Europeanized Ukraine, prosperous and governed by the rule of law, where a “Ukraine virus” might be bred that would ultimately “infect” Russia. Ukrainian federalism would also be a false solution. Put aside for the moment Russia’s own constitutional arrangement, which resembles Western federalism in form only. In the case of Ukraine, Russia would use federalism as a justification for new legal pressures and excuses to separate and then annex additional regions, or to destabilize Ukraine as a whole to force Kyiv to rejoin Russia. Though Putin has acted incrementally so far, there is little doubt about his ultimate goal of not only the economic but also the full political integration of Ukraine into a “Greater Russia.” During his triumphalist visit to Crimea on May 9th, for instance, he called the illegal annexation of that territory “ . . . affirming fidelity to the historical truth and the memory of our ancestors.” It is also noteworthy that Putin has taken to calling southern and eastern Ukraine by an imperial Russian term, Novorossiya (New Russia).


European leaders, who on March 6th threatened to impose broad economic sanctions if Moscow engages in “further steps to destabilize the situation in Ukraine,” certainly didn’t follow through with their threats when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. These same leaders also unfortunately ignored the Kremlin’s ongoing—beginning with Obama’s presidency in 2009—and increasingly bold, and under international law illiterate, claims that it had a right to protect Russians living in former Soviet lands and that Moscow had made this part of Russian military doctrine, just as they had also ignored threats, going back to 2013, that Putin leveled at Kyiv if it signed the Eastern Partnership with the EU. Adding to Western ineffectiveness, Obama, during the current crisis, bizarrely lectured Putin in their telephone conversations that he was “on the wrong side of history,” to which the Russian leader might well have reflected to himself, Clinton-style, “Depends on what your definition of ‘history’ is.” In contrast to wavering and hand-wringing in the West, Putin seems not only resolute but increasingly powerful within Russia. His popularity, fueled by seemingly cost-free conquest and relentless media manipulation, reached eighty-two percent by the end of April 2014, just below the high of eighty-five percent of spring 2008 (after which it fell precipitously), according to polling by the independent Levada Center. As with much else in Russia, however, reality and appearance here do not necessarily coincide. Putin’s popularity is highly likely to be ephemeral, given that chauvinism is subject to its own laws of diminishing returns. There have been some significant demonstrations against his policy in Ukraine already, although they are underreported in the West, and we should not forget the mass protests he faced in 2011 and 2012. The Russian economy continues to do poorly and is stuck at a very low base, and Russia’s association with various nefarious and bloody dictatorships is hardly likely to increase Moscow’s prestige in the world.

As a result, the West has many options beyond the reactive fecklessness that has characterized its approach to the crisis thus far. But if it is to get into the game, it needs to take the initiative both politically and economically. Soft power alone has not deterred Russia, and neither have the “soft” sanctions it has imposed. This is why the West has to move to sanctions that will be a form of hard power, even though they will not be cost free.

International political prestige is central to Putin in his dream of Russian restoration. Significant international ostracism, as opposed to the wrist slaps employed thus far, would be a painful blow for him. In this regard, the West has many options. Chancellor Merkel has already stated, for instance, that “at the moment, the G8 doesn’t exist anymore,” referring to the Group of 8’s temporary boycott of Russian membership. It is encouraging that Germany, which conducts a great deal of trade with Russia and has a considerable degree of dependence on Russian energy, is indicating that it is prepared to make important sacrifices. It would be more significant for Russia to be formally expelled from the G8.

Steps should also be taken at the UN to try to expel Russia from the Human Rights Council. There are mechanisms for doing this, and even if not successful the West would be putting Putin on the defensive. Further, the United States and its allies should push for additional condemnatory resolutions by the Security Council to force Russia to use its veto and continue to have China abstain. Though the immediate impact of each action at the United Nations may be limited, the cumulative effect would help both humble Russia and keep it off balance.

So far though, any suggestion that Putin has blinked in saying that he accepted the results of the Ukraine presidential election is not merely premature; it goes against the evidence that he has maintained his strategic goals regarding Ukraine, even if his most recent tactics, again, suggest a gradualist approach. He continues to insist on “federalism” in Ukraine, which in the current Russian imperialist lexicon, as noted, is a prelude to annexation slice by slice, and has maintained Moscow’s brutal economic pressure on Kyiv. Seminally, the Kremlin continues its large stealth military presence in eastern Ukraine and in some ways has enhanced it, sending in more professional and disciplined forces like the combat-experienced Vostok Battalion to bring order to the secessionists and to streamline and strengthen Moscow’s control in key parts of the region.

Further, the extremely limited sanctions that the West has imposed on Russia seem to have little ill effect on Moscow’s other activities. Putin was invited by President François Hollande to attend the June D-Day commemoration in Normandy and dine with him at the Élysée Palace. France, despite objections from its allies, has indicated that it intends to deliver the two advanced $1.3 billion helicopter carriers to the Russian navy, as contracted. At the St. Petersburg International Economic forum in May, major Western oil companies, including America’s Exxon Mobil, sat down with Russian oil giant Rosneft’s Western-sanctioned chief executive, Igor Sechin, and virtually fell over themselves trying to indicate that they will continue or even enhance their business ties with Russia. BP, which already has a close to twenty percent stake in Rosneft, signed a major agreement to jointly explore hard-to-recover oil in Russia with its Russian partner. In St. Petersburg, BP CEO Bob Dudley declared that “We have a responsibility to stand with our [Russian] partners in difficult times,” while Christophe de Margerie from France’s Total, which reached a deal with Russia’s Lukoil, proclaimed, “My message to Russia is simple—business as usual.” Crucially, Moscow in May also reached the largest energy export deal in history when it signed a $400 billion agreement to supply China with natural gas. And at the end of May, Putin and the leaders of Kazakhstan and Belarus signed a broad customs union, the Eurasian Economic Union, which, as part of Russia’s Eurasianism, is meant to bring the economies of the two smaller states under Moscow’s control. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan are also moving to come under Moscow’s full tutelage as they face unrelenting pressure from the Kremlin. Consequently, President Obama’s suggestion, in his major foreign policy speech at West Point on May 28th, that the current sanctions and his administration’s ability to shape world opinion “helped isolate Russia right away” hardly rises above the risible.

Economic sanctions, however, can have a real impact on Russia’s economy, as it is largely one-dimensional, and very different from the autarkic Soviet system. There are now vast Russian assets abroad, a stock market in Moscow, Russian sovereign bonds, and a huge number of oligarchs closely tied to Putin. The Russian banking system functions within the international one, and for all the fear generated by the possibility that it will turn off the gas valves, Russia is even more dependent on energy exports than Europe is on such imports.

For the West to take the initiative, given the long-term costs of not checking Russia’s dangerous imperial delusions, economic sanctions need to be applied massively and decisively. Swedish economist Anders Aslund, therefore, is quite correct about the desirability of a Powell Doctrine–like approach—shock and awe—to economic sanctions against Putin’s Russia.

Sanctions against hundreds of oligarchs would have an enormously disruptive effect not only on those close to the Russian president but on the vulnerable Russian economy itself. It would greatly dampen popular enthusiasm for Russian foreign adventurism as the costs begin to sink in. Comprehensive banking and commercial sanctions would cause tremendous disruption and some pain not only for the jet-setting rich but for ordinary Russians. Assessments by Bloomberg, for instance, have shown just how grave the risk gauges for Russia are, particularly in terms of asset values, sovereign funds, and ruble volatility, among other areas (see “Putin Debt to Equity Hit on Crimea Seizure,” available at Bloomberg’s website).

Energy is another pivotal area where the West could and should act. European dependence on Russian energy has been diminishing, and even German leaders have indicated their readiness, under certain circumstances, to impose sanctions despite their large reliance on Russia for energy imports. The West has also taken steps to be able to supply more-vulnerable states in Europe by developing the capacity to reverse flows in pipelines. The Europeans need to sharply increase such a capacity and spread the burden. The US can also help by signaling that in the future it will bring its vast energy resources to bear by authorizing the future sale of liquefied natural gas to Europe on a significant scale, and by approving the Keystone Pipeline. Further, the West should abandon once and for all the Russian pipeline project South Stream, which would transport Russian natural gas through the Black Sea to Bulgaria and then to Greece, Italy, and Austria, and focus all its efforts on reviving its rival, the moribund Nabucco pipeline, which would bring natural gas from the Central Asian republics to the European states.

The global energy picture is changing rapidly thanks to vast new discoveries of natural gas in shale and additional sources of offshore oil in various parts of the world. Russia knows that its ability to use energy blackmail and pipeline diplomacy is diminishing. The West should indicate, in no uncertain terms, that it knows this too, and that it will no longer truckle to Putin’s clumsy bullying.

The West’s willful helplessness in the face of Russian aggression is not only incomprehensible but, if Ukraine is sacrificed, will be historically unforgivable. The West has the capacity to act effectively to stop and even reverse Russia’s aggression. But for the West to be successful here it also needs to appreciate that in dealing with Russia, “soft” and “hard” power cannot be segregated or confused with one another. Soft power alone is like having cream in the morning without the coffee. There is no reason for the West to be reactive and defeatist.

Aurel Braun is a visiting professor in the department of government at Harvard University and a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Toronto. His latest book is NATO-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century.

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