Everyone agrees that the West should tighten the screws on Russia, but no one is sure why. Russia will never return Crimea to Ukraine; and even if Russia were willing, the West could hardly demand that Crimea be handed back against the will of the Crimeans themselves. It is widely and enthusiastically said that Russia should be punished. But punished for doing what, exactly, and how? The West can’t win this contest, and we shouldn’t try.
The West finds itself in a difficult position for a number of reasons: Start with the sanctions. Sanctions are famously ineffective. Countries don’t like imposing sanctions because sanctions hurt them as much as the target. Europe could certainly sanction Russia by refusing to buy gas, but then Europeans would freeze through the chilly spring while Russia sold its gas to other buyers. The evidence suggests that sanctions are effective only when nearly all countries gang up on a relatively weak country. That’s not going to happen to Russia. It’s not a weak country, and China and India have taken its side.
Some people think that “smart sanctions” targeted at Putin’s pals, the oligarchs, could make a difference. But the oligarchs luxuriate in their riches because they support Putin, not the other way around. Putin will ensure that they don’t feel too much pain. He can give them more state contracts at better terms. He can instruct Russian banks to lend to them against their frozen assets, which will eventually be thawed. He can hand over wads of cash to them. They can’t travel to London or New York anymore, but it’s a big world.
Then there is the question of what sanctions, even if effective, might accomplish. Russia violated international law by sending troops to Crimea and engineering Crimea’s annexation. But the West has engaged in similar actions itself, which raises the question: What principle do we seek to vindicate? The West has illegally intervened in Serbia, Iraq, and (arguably) Libya, as Putin keeps reminding us. We argue that Russia is different; it violated Ukraine’s sovereignty by using intimidation to influence the Crimea referendum. But if you think only Russia meddles in the politics of foreign countries, read Masha Gessen in Slate on Western support for groups that opposed Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in 1999–2000:
After the bombing campaign, which strengthened support for Milosevic and weakened his opponents, the U.S. poured cash into rebuilding the Serbian opposition. The funding was contingent on the disparate opposition groups agreeing to work together and attending regular coordination meetings held in Budapest—meetings run by people whom participants understood to represent the State Department. The plan for the anti-Milosevic revolution was worked out in these meetings right down to the smallest detail, including where the leaders of each of the 18 participating political organizations would be if mass protests broke out in Belgrade.
The United States installed pro-Western governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, and sought vainly to convert these places into liberal democracies, and in the process did vastly more harm than the Russians have managed to produce so far. Our respect for the sovereignty of foreign countries is as thin and opportunistic as Russia’s.
We like to argue that at least when we intervene, we fly the banner of human rights, unlike Russia, which doesn’t care about them. But the implications of the Crimea intervention for the human rights of Crimeans are not at all clear. While the civil liberties situation is worse in Russia than it is in Ukraine, it is also bad in Ukraine. And the difference for Crimea—which will likely retain, as a Russian province, the semiautonomous status it enjoyed in Ukraine—is not likely to be great. The ethnic Russians in Crimea feel more secure in Russia; no doubt the Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians feel less secure. The Russian government, as bad as it is, may seem preferable to the famously bungling Ukrainian government, which mismanaged and impoverished the country over two decades.