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.
A more important Western goal than the protection of human rights in Crimea is curtailing the right to self-determination. Yes, you heard that right. We don’t like all human rights, and we particularly dislike the right to self-determination, although it is enshrined in numerous treaties. Although we might sympathize with Crimeans, Catalonians, Scots, or Québécois who want to leave their countries and either join another or start their own, we care even more about our relations with the governments that rule them. We also worry that the right to self-determination, taken to its logical conclusion, may result in chaos from the proliferation of microstates that can’t manage their affairs. In Crimea, for example, what if the Tatars wanted to start their own state by carving out a piece of territory for themselves? Thus, the worry is that if Crimeans are allowed to leave Ukraine, then separatist movements around the world—and they exist in nearly every country, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe—will be encouraged to declare independence as well.
Governments oppose separatist movements for numerous reasons, both good and bad. The good reason is that the minority seeking separation may deprive the majority in the rump of access to the ocean, or valuable resources, or a broad tax base that can be used to pay for public goods that benefit everyone. Moreover, separatists sometimes turn from a beleaguered minority to an oppressive majority as soon as they obtain their own territory, as occurred in Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs have suffered under ethnic Albanian rule. The bad reason is that minorities can be exploited, even in democratic countries, where, after all, majorities rule. Separation may be the only remedy where the majority loathes the minority and the minority dominates a particular region.
The equities in each case are complicated. But the secession of Crimea, good or bad, is now an accomplished fact. Sanctioning Russia will not discourage other minorities from seeking independence. Indeed, it is doubtful that Crimea’s secession will encourage other separatist movements to redouble their efforts to carve out new countries. Crimea seceded only by agreeing to be gobbled up by another state. This is not the goal of other separatist movements, which seek independence, not annexation by a foreign country. They may think twice about pursuing separatist aims in an increasingly dangerous world where little countries are bullied by big ones.
A more straightforward reason for sanctioning Russia is to deter it from attacking other countries. But most countries don’t invade others. Crimea was uniquely vulnerable, with a majority ethnic Russian population that welcomed the invaders; existing Russian military bases; and historical ties to Russia. Putin grabbed Crimea to avenge Ukraine’s defenestration of his puppet, Viktor Yanukovych. Russia’s other neighbors are either already compliant or extremely hostile, like Ukraine itself. Rather than occupy hostile territories, powerful countries prefer to exert influence from across the border while letting the foreign population misgovern itself. It’s just too much trouble to invade a country and be forced to govern a restive population, as the United States recently learned, to its sorrow, in Afghanistan and Iraq. An invasion of Ukraine—at least, beyond a few marginal regions in the east—would offer Russia nothing but a guerilla war on foreign territory.
In the unlikely event that Russia tries to conquer Ukraine or Estonia, there will be good reasons to respond with significant economic sanctions, military aid, or force. Estonia is an ally, and Ukraine is an important country. But if Russia stops with Crimea, it is hard to see what could be accomplished from sanctions. And for that reason, we can be sure that Russia will not expect sanctions to last long, and so will wait them out. That means that sanctions will hurt both the West and Russia without accomplishing any good.
Putin’s annexation of Crimea gave him a short-term political boost at home that will eventually dissipate. In the long term, Russia gains nothing from the annexation but an arid peninsula of no economic or military importance, and the distrust of its neighbors. Putin’s foolish move will be its own punishment.