Containing Putin [Editorial]

The seizure of the Crimea region of southern Ukraine by Russian troops over the weekend has created the most serious crisis in Europe since Moscow's 2008 incursion into Georgia, which led to the effective dismemberment and annexation of parts of that former Soviet republic. President Barack Obama was right to warn Russian president Vladimir Putin that his country will pay a price for attempting a similar territorial grab in Ukraine, but in order to make that threat credible he must use all the diplomatic tools at his disposal to convince America's European allies to speak with one voice in condemning Russia's dangerous military adventurism and flagrant violation of international norms while avoiding an escalation of the crisis that could lead to armed conflict.

Mr. Obama's critics have often derided what they call his administration's "weakness" in foreign policy, saying he has emboldened despots and autocrats like Mr. Putin to believe they can ignore U.S. concerns with impunity. But in fact there is no muscular U.S. or NATO military option that's likely to force the Russian leader to suddenly back down, as former Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev did during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead, the president must rely on a combination of diplomatic and economic sanctions that over the long term work to convince Mr. Putin that his dream of reconstituting the power and prestige of the old Soviet Union is an illusion that can never be realized by bullying and threatening Russia's neighbors.

On Sunday Mr. Obama approved a number of measures aimed at isolating Moscow and preventing it from seizing more Ukrainian territory. They include suspending preparations for U.S. participation in the upcoming G-8 meeting of major industrial countries in Sochi, which Mr. Putin had been scheduled to host, and garnering European support for shoring up the beleaguered government of Ukraine, which is broke, inexperienced, disorganized and militarily weak compared to Russia. The president also scrapped a planned trade mission to Moscow and a meeting with a Russian delegation in Washington on energy issues, as well as a planned meeting on naval cooperation between the two countries.

Few in the administration expect any of these measures to reverse Russia's occupation of Crimea in the short run. But over time they could dissuade Mr. Putin from moving further into eastern Ukraine, whose Russian-speaking population has long had close ties to Moscow, with the goal of cutting the country in half. Mr. Obama has given Mr. Putin a face-saving way to exercise restraint by proposing European monitors be stationed in the region to protect Ukraine's Russian-speaking minority. Though the administration clearly doesn't believe Mr. Putin's claim that they face persecution under the Kiev government, that gambit would be worth it if it helped convince Mr. Putin not to attempt to overplay his hand.

The reality is that Mr. Putin's cards may not be the winners he thinks they are because over the long run events are unlikely to work out to Russia's advantage. Already Mr. Putin must realize that any boost to Russia's prestige from hosting the Olympic Winter Games has evaporated. But the larger issue is that his reckless incursion into the Crimea is likely to undermine Russia's own interests as a European power. In a Europe whose future lies in ever greater economic integration and interdependence, Mr. Putin's goal of resurrecting a separate Russian-dominated economic zone to compete with the West patterned after the closed economy of the old Soviet Union is a historical anachronism.

The fact that Moscow's incursion into the Crimea was reflected almost immediately by a drop in the value of the ruble and falling financial markets ought to give Mr. Putin pause to wonder whether the perceived benefits of Russia's move into Ukraine really are worth the cost. And he should be thinking especially hard about occupying or annexing a large neighbor, the majority of whose citizens are fiercely devoted to their country's independence and deeply resentful of Russia's presence there. The last thing Russia needs is another Chechnya to contend with.

The overriding concern for the U.S. and its allies must be to make those cost-benefit equations crystal clear to Mr. Putin, and to emphasize how the instability he has introduced into the heart Europe is in no one's interest. Above all, Mr. Obama must seek to prevent open warfare between Russia and Ukraine that could spin out of control with disastrous consequences for everyone. If the U.S. and its European allies are to accomplish that, they must present a united front against Russia's aggression.

Results may not be apparent overnight, but we must hope that however grandiose his imperial ambitions, Mr. Putin isn't completely detached from reality. Sooner or later the Russian leader will realize he can't recreate the old Soviet Union's faded glory through reckless military adventures against neighboring states.

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