What Russia does next is crucial. If the Russian government chooses to respect the vote of the Crimean population and ultimately annexes Crimea, further instability in the region becomes more likely, particularly in the eastern provinces of Ukraine.
Similarly, the response from the U.S. and the European Union to Russia’s possible annexation will also be critical. At this point, the U.S. has warned of a rapid response to Putin’s next steps. Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, stated recently that “We stand ready to respond should the referendum go forward on Sunday.”
Instead of an intemperate response now, perhaps a better U.S. rejoinder to a possible Russian annexation would be a measured response, carefully calibrated to take into consideration all of America’s economic and security interests, both in the region and the larger world.
At this point, the Obama administration has already authorized asset freezes and travel bans on Russian persons responsible for the intervention in Crimea. In addition, the upcoming G8 summit in Sochi and OECD membership talks for Russia have been suspended for now. The administration and its allies in Europe are considering additional sanctions, such as an arms embargo and Iran-style financial sanctions. However, these and others being considered are unlikely both to elicit the response desired from Russia or prove effective or very harmful in the medium-term.
Indeed, Russia has many more opportunities to impose injury and undermine American policy in the short-term. For one, it is not yet springtime in Europe and Russia could decrease natural gas exports to the West, as it has done several times before. It can also bring similarly grievous economic pressures to bear on other countries on Russia’s borders with which it has ongoing disagreements, e.g., Latvia, Estonia and Georgia.
Russia’s leaders may also respond to more extensive sanctions by nationalizing American and, more importantly, European foreign direct investments in Russia; to be sure, they have done so before in the oil and gas industry, under much less threatening conditions.
In the medium-term, Russia’s backing for the current understandings with Iran and Syria could fully unravel, with the situation perhaps exacerbated by sales of the country’s most advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile systems to such regimes. Such missiles, and other advanced weapons technologies, may be provided by Russia on easier terms to even less savory regimes, e.g., Kim Jong Un’s North Korea.
In addition, the Russians could deny NATO the use of critical land and aerial routes for transit of weapons and military hardware to and from Afghanistan. Russia, too, will be driven further into the arms of a rising China, thereby potentially further destabilizing East Asia, as Beijing grows increasingly confident.
Thus, the U.S. response to the Crimean referendum should be weighed carefully against both the likelihood of its success and against the losses to American national security interests in other areas of the world. Instead of wielding an ineffective economic “stick” against Russia now, perhaps it’s time to offer Moscow some sort of face-saving option, while warning of additional political and economic costs to come. Those who argue for crippling sanctions against Russia now not only underestimate Russia’s ability to cause us trouble in other theaters, but also ignore the real threat to America’s long-term national security interests that lies further east.
Tom Rotnem is a professor of political science at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Georgia. He studies comparative politics, with a specialization in Russian politics.