Sanctions, diplomacy and the crisis in Crimea

President Obama’s announcement yesterday of targeted sanctions against Russia is an appropriate response to Moscow’s aggressive military and political actions in Crimea. So is the European Union’s decision to adopt parallel sanctions. These actions send a message condemning Sunday’s referendum in Crimea as without standing in international law. They indicate that Russia will pay a price if it continues along its current provocative path.

The U.S. and EU measures adopted so far are limited. They leave open the option for stronger sanctions if Russia takes further actions to destabilize Ukraine, while signaling a desire to reach a negotiated political solution to the crisis.

Along with sanctions must come financial assistance to address Ukraine’s economic needs, and diplomatic and political support for its territorial integrity. The United States and the EU should follow up on their financial pledges and work with Ukrainian authorities to ensure accountability for the support provided.

The initial sanctions will not have much immediate impact in Russia, but if more robust measures are adopted over time they could impose costs on Russia’s elite and the tycoons who have stood behind Putin’s power. This could begin to erode the support Putin now enjoys in Russian opinion polls and raise questions about what his aggressive policies have achieved.

Putin’s motives are not clear. He is apparently seeking to prevent Ukraine from aligning with the West, but his heavy-handed actions will only make that outcome more likely. Officials in Kiev are more eager than ever to join the EU and NATO, and European and U.S. leaders may be more willing to oblige. If Crimea joins Russia, lawmakers in Kiev will have fewer pro-Russian voters to accommodate and Ukraine’s delicate political balance will shift slightly to the Westernizers. Ukrainian nationalists from all regions will be less likely to trust and rely upon Moscow.

Hopefully Russia will soon realize its blunder and seek a way out of the crisis. Until then the United States and Europe should apply steady but measured pressure, while actively seeking a diplomatic solution that preserves Ukrainian sovereignty while granting greater autonomy to Crimea.

The most important priority is to avoid armed action. If fighting breaks out it will be very difficult to contain and would have devastating consequences. The U.S. and the EU should work together to prevent and restrain any form of military response.