Skip to main content

Russia needs to face significant and long-term diplomatic and economic consequences for its invasion, occupation, and annexation of part of Ukraine. The West's response to date has been a joke, and it's been a joke on the free world.

It is clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin has orchestrated an almost bloodless takeover of Crimea – territory that is, and remains, part of Ukraine legally, if not effectively. Such naked aggression against a neighbouring friendly country should have no place in the 21st century. That's the principle at stake here and failing to respond more strongly only emboldens such behavior. It bears noting that it's not the first time Russia has expanded its territory by force – but that's been forgotten, just what appears will happen here unless there's a sudden change in tactics from the West.

Mr. Putin is no doubt expecting that the West will move along to other affairs, having made its symbolic protest to his Crimean adventure. Missing aircraft and natural disasters filled the headlines with far more stories than Crimea, even as Mr. Putin's signature on its annexation was still drying. He is no doubt counting on the fact that, after enough time, his illegal acquisition will achieve acquiescence. Never in his wildest dreams could he have expected it to occur so quickly.

Every public indication is that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been pushing our allies to do more to apply consequences to Russia – he's been doing his part. Canada cannot, and should not, go it alone. Ultimate leadership from the West in responding to this situation falls to U.S. President Barack Obama. He's failing miserably. Political considerations – not military or economic calculations – are probably to blame.

We can only imagine how President Obama's discussion with his advisors went: "Russia won't respond to economic sanctions, so applying such pressure without success only makes us look weak." That is a recipe for doing nothing beyond making largely perfunctory statements like the kind that Mr. Obama actually made recently in The Hague: "What we can bring to bear are the legal arguments, the diplomatic arguments." Mitt Romney was being polite when he characterized such an approach as "naive". Such puffery is Mr. Putin's best-case scenario.

Even if compliance with international law cannot be secured in this situation due to Russia's intransigence, there must be significant and lasting consequences for such a flagrant breach of its basic standards.

It says a lot that the countries who created the International Criminal Court vested it with the eventual power to prosecute those leaders responsible for the crime of aggression: "the planning, preparation, initiation or execution of an act of using armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State." There is little prospect of Mr. Putin or his generals ever facing personal responsibility for Crimea.

Territorial integrity and the prohibition on the use of force, absent exceptional circumstances that are not applicable here, are the basic tenets of international law, which all states are to enjoy – not just those with the strongest militaries. These precepts were also assurances obtained by Ukraine when it handed over nuclear weapons on its soil to Russia. Violating these principles requires a stringent response, or they are rendered meaningless.

The status of Russia as a nuclear power, its privileged position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council (with a veto), and its trade with the European Union appear to have conspired to create what has, to date, been a tepid and feckless response.

I don't think we're heading for a new Cold War. What we face now is a different challenge. It requires a different response. Canada and its allies were right to rule out a direct military response or posturing early in this unfolding international crisis. But, we would be wrong to not go further and faster with imposing significant diplomatic and economic sanctions now that it has been established that Russia has no intention of vacating Ukraine.

Leadership needs to come now from the White House and European leaders to respond to Russia, and Canada should join them. To start with, a significant but tailored regime of economic sanctions is necessary. Expect trade retaliation from Russia. There will be costs to standing up to Russia on this issue, but the costs of not doing so are far greater. Indeed, failing to act against history's autocrats, of which Mr. Putin has cemented his place due to much more than just this recent action in Crimea, only leaves us waiting for their next move. And such bullies only get bolder each time they go unchallenged.

Benjamin Perrin is a law professor at the University of British Columbia, senior fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute, and editor of Modern Warfare: Armed Groups, Private Militaries, Humanitarian Organizations and the Law (UBC Press, 2012). He is former special advisor, legal affairs & policy in the Prime Minister's Office.