After months of resisting U.S. calls for tougher economic sanctions against Russia in response to its support for separatist rebels in Ukraine, the major European powers agreed yesterday on a package of measures targeting Russia's financial, energy and military sectors that in some cases go even farther than the actions the U.S. itself has taken. Whether that will be enough to alter Russian President Vladimir Putin's calculations in the covert war he is waging in Ukraine remains to be seen. But it at least shows that Europe is finally waking up to the fact that it can't stand idly by as Mr. Putin systematically dismantles the post-Cold War order that has guaranteed stability on the continent since the collapse of the former Soviet Union more than two decades ago.
America's European allies previously had been reluctant to back stiffer penalties aimed at punishing Moscow for its aggression in Ukraine out of fear that doing so would damage their own economies, which are more dependent on Russian trade and natural gas supplies than America's is. But the downing of a Malaysian passenger jet over Ukraine two weeks ago by rebels using Russian-supplied missiles seems to have galvanized opinion there in favor of stronger action. More than 100 of the nearly 300 people killed when the plane went down were European nationals, and the rebels' despicable treatment of the victims' remains and interference with international inspectors sent to investigate the crash provoked a wave a revulsion that allowed Europe's leaders to ratchet up the pressure on Moscow with their publics' blessing.
Key to the changed European attitude was Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, whose country does a brisk business exporting technology and manufactured goods to Russia and in turn relies on Russian natural gas imports to supply a third of its energy needs. For months, Ms. Merkel took the position that the relatively mild E.U. sanctions imposed earlier on Russia were sufficient to deter it from further meddling in Ukraine and that they simply needed to be given more time to work.
After the downing of MH Flight 17, however, Ms. Merkel's view apparently hardened. At some point she seems to have determined that Russia's aggression in Ukraine posed a greater long-term threat to German security than any potential damage to her country's economy as a result of broader sanctions. Her change of course put pressure on France to do likewise, and when the French decided to go along the Italians were forced to do so as well in order to avoid sending mixed signals to Moscow.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has pledged to unveil new sanctions of its own this week, further limiting Russian access to Western capital markets by targeting individual banks not covered by the European sanctions, which only apply to those that are majority owned by the Russian state. That will increase the pressure on Russia's already stressed economy, which since the Ukraine crisis began has seen a massive flight of capital, downward pressure on the value of the ruble and a slowing of foreign investment.
So the ball is back in Mr. Putin's court, and how he responds will likely determine whether even more stringent sanctions lie ahead. The Russian leader has painted himself into a corner that could be difficult to back out of, however. At home his popularity has soared on a tide of nationalist sentiment whipped up by state-controlled media that portray him as a hero for his annexation of Crimea earlier this year and his grandiose vision of a pan-Eurasian economic sphere led by Russia. But that dream could quickly crumble if he appeared to abandon the Russian-speaking separatists in Ukraine whom he has armed and supported up to now.
If it is indeed Mr. Putin's intention to reduce the tensions he himself has fomented and relieve the pressure of sanctions on Russia's faltering economy, he will need a face-saving way to reverse course without appearing to cave in to Western pressure. If not he may conclude his only alternative is to escalate the conflict in Ukraine and dare the world to stop him; Russian troops have moved closer to the border with Ukraine and are conducting maneuvers that appear to be preparation for an invasion.
Or Mr. Putin may be bluffing in hopes the U.S. and its allies will accept the status quo, in which Russia continues to wage its proxy war against Ukraine but stops short of sending in its own troops. That's a formula for continued instability in the region, and it's also a risky strategy because the consequences of a miscalculation are too terrible to contemplate. But Mr. Putin got himself in this mess, and regardless of what the West does in the end it's going to be up to him to get himself out.
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