Tom Zirpoli: Economic sanctions prove effective

In a commencement address to the U.S. Military Academy last month, President Barack Obama made the case for more restraint and less military intervention when dealing with international problems.

“I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak,” stated Obama.

Of course, the war hawks in America don’t think Obama uses military force enough. They are critical of the president for not continuing the Iraq and Afghanistan wars longer, for not sending troops into Syria and for not confronting Russia with military force over the crisis in Ukraine. For the war hawks, every problem around the world is an opportunity to use American military force. For them, the lessons of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are not that we should be cautious about military intervention, but that we need more military interventions.

Obama also made the case for building more international coalitions, especially economic coalitions, in response to hot spots around the world. He used Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine as an example of successfully using coordinated international economic sanctions over military force. As columnist Tom Friedman recently wrote in The New York Times, “It was Putinism versus Obamaism” and “Putin got pretty much everything wrong in Ukraine. Putin underestimated the impact of Western economic sanctions. The world turned out to be more interdependent, and Russia more exposed to that interdependence, than Putin thought.”

Regarding Ukraine, Friedman wrote that Putin blinked after seriously considering additional annexations on the border with Ukraine. While he has won, at least for now, military control of the Crimean Peninsula, Friedman believes that he has lost the war. Having realized the mess he has made for Russia due to his actions in Crimea, Putin is pulling back his troops from Ukraine’s eastern border. He has even expressed his support of Ukraine’s national election results, even as the people of Ukraine voted for closer ties to the European Union, not Russia. As stated by Alexander Motyl, writing for World Affairs, “Ukraine now has a legitimately elected president and Putin has egg on his face.”

“Be careful what you ask for” may be the slogan many are voicing now in both Russia and Crimea. Reporters visiting Crimea report government offices closed, as well as empty banks and grocery stores. Crimea is now Putin’s responsibility. He is the dog that chased the car, caught the car, and now doesn’t know how to manage what he has caught.

Once annexed by Russia, even McDonald’s restaurants in Crimea are closed. It seems that there isn’t an easy way to get meat from Russia to Crimea until a bridge is built across the Black Sea, which separates the homeland of Russia from the annexed Crimean Peninsula. That will take years.

Meanwhile, writes Alec Luhn, an American journalist working in Russia, “Delivery trucks from Russia can only reach Crimea via a ferry across the Kerch strait. Lines of trucks there and at the new border with Ukraine, where most of Crimea’s food comes from, have reportedly grown several hours long.” Luhn adds that, “Russia’s annexation of Crimea has resulted in startling disruption to everyday life.”

Putin is now responsible for the lives of 2.4 million people in Crimea, where even water, which flows through Ukraine, has been drastically reduced since the annexation. Without adequate water supplies, farming in Crimea is at risk and food supplies are becoming an issue.

Will ordinary Russians approve of their government spending billions of dollars for new bridges, water lines and other essentials to keep Crimea functioning, even as their own economy suffers under new economic sanctions? And how long will it take for a majority of people in Crimea to demand a return to Ukraine?

Did Putin make Obama look weak, as some American war hawks believe, or did Obama make Putin look stupid?

Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.
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