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Opinion To stop Putin in Ukraine, Obama must offer more than rhetoric

Aurel Braun is a visiting professor, Department of Government, Harvard University and professor of Political Science and International Relations, University of Toronto. His latest book is Nato-Russia Relations in the 21st Century.

Barely within a day after U.S. President Barack Obama took a victory lap in his State of the Union address regarding Russia – not only ridiculing any notion that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have demonstrated strength and strategy, but suggesting instead that thanks to American actions "Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters," – heavily reinforced Russian proxy rebel forces in Eastern Ukraine captured the symbolically significant Donetsk airport's main terminal and then embarked on a massive multi-directional offensive. Coincidence? Perhaps not.

Mr. Obama's triumphalism was not merely premature. The claim that his policies of limited sanctions were responsible for Russia's economic difficulties was unfortunately similar to a crowing rooster claiming credit for the rise of the morning sun. Indeed, Russia's uni-dimensional, vulnerable economy is suffering but this is primarily because of the dramatic fall in the price of oil. The latter is primarily due to world energy market forces and in smaller measure to punitive Saudi policy rather than U.S. actions. Further, and crucially, Russia's economy – though weakened and likely to contract by perhaps 5 per cent this year – is hardly unravelling, and it is not near the stage where it will experience the kind of crisis that will induce political restraint from Mr. Putin. It would take vastly stronger measures and a far deeper economic crisis to inhibit Mr. Putin's ability to continue to take the initiative, force him to focus on domestic problems and compel him to cut off rebels in eastern Ukraine.

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To induce Mr. Putin into such political retrenchment and realism, the West would need to introduce powerful sectoral sanctions and require far more political determination on and meaningful support for Ukraine.

First, the West needs to appreciate that sanctions by their very nature are coercive and consequently constitute hard rather than soft power. The failure of sanctions to achieve the desired goals therefore involve the same kind of dangers as the failure of hard power, namely blowback or even outright counterattack.

Second, effective sanctions require leadership, sacrifice and persistence. All of these seem to be in short supply not only in the United States but also among western European allies. Earlier this month, French President François Hollande suggested that the West should stop threatening Russia with new sanctions and that in fact such sanctions should stop now if there was progress in the peace process in Ukraine. Claiming that Mr. Putin has personally reassured him that Russia does not wish to annex eastern Ukraine, Mr. Hollande approvingly repeated Moscow's talking points that what Russia really wants is that Ukraine not become a member of NATO and that Russia should not have an army at its borders. In short, not only was Mr. Hollande apparently against strengthening sanctions and in favour of ending them but was evidently suggesting that the victim of Russian aggression, Ukraine, should have its sovereignty limited and the free choices of its population denied in order to appease Moscow.

At the same time Germany's Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel warned against "destabilizing" Russia through too severe sanctions and contended that "the goal was never to push Russia politically and economically into chaos." In short, Mr. Gabriel and Mr. Hollande were suggesting that whatever sanctions were imposed on Russia, colloquially these should not be "a punch in the face" but be restricted to a slap on the wrist.

Long-time observers of Europe would not be surprised that the European states are often disunited, preoccupied with internal issues and economically opportunistic. Yet even when some show a willingness to act in a principled fashion as Chancellor Angela Merkel has demonstrated in advocating stronger sanctions at certain points, the unifying glue in the West has been missing. That "glue" has traditionally been American leadership. When that leadership was bold and determined, as in the case of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, it proved to be effective. Mr. Obama's "leadership from behind" has been the obverse. His grand rhetoric could hardly contrast more with the timidity and fecklessness of his policies.

Collectively, the West retains enormous capacity. Given political will, it could impose sanctions that would make Russian economic difficulties vastly deeper to the extent that Mr. Putin, with a consequently collapsing popularity, would have little choice but to reorient his policies. At the same time, the West could do far more to support Kiev economically and politically as Ukraine, under its new reformist government, is desperately trying to reverse decades of failed economic policies and reign in rampant corruption. As well, as Ukraine's long neglected and weak armed forces face Moscow-supported rebels and thousands of "phantom" Russian troops (the notorious "little green men") now heavily resupplied with sophisticated Russian weapons, the West could provide the Ukrainians with desperately needed antitank weapons, command and control systems and antiaircraft missiles that would both send a message and dramatically enhance Kiev's ability to defend its sovereignty.

Despite grand American rhetoric, Western policy to date has remained weak. Mr. Putin consequently has been able to take the initiative and the rebels, who had been losing massively in recent months, are now on multiple major offensives. Mr. Obama and the West's fecklessness once more prove the international relations adage that weakness can be provocative.

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