FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: But first here’s my take. The deal announced Thursday to end the fighting in Ukraine will face the same obstacle the previous such agreement faced — how to ensure that Russia will abide by it.
Frustrated by Moscow’s continued support for Ukrainian separatists, Western statesmen have begun discussing military assistance for the Ukrainian government. But in trying to decide what would actually deter Moscow, it might be worth listening to what seems to scare Russians themselves. And it is not military aid to Kiev.
When asked recently about the possibility of so-called swift sanctions, which would bar Russia from participating in the international payment system centered on the dollar, Prime Minister Medvedev warned that Moscow’s response would be without limits.
It’s understandable why Putin’s closest associates are so rattled by the prospect of additional economic sanctions. The Russian economy is in free fall. In a report released this week, the International Energy Agency said that Russia is facing a perfect storm of collapsing prices, international sanctions and currency depreciation. The IMF projects Russia’s economy will contract by 3 percent in 2015.
And Putin needs strong oil revenues to maintain his power. From 2008 to 2009 when oil revenues did collapse during the global financial crisis, the Russian government increased its spending by a staggering 40 percent, all to preserve social stability. This according to the economists.
On the other hand, Russia could easily handle continuing its military skirmishing in eastern Ukraine. Moscow’s defense budget in 2014 was roughly 20 times that of Kiev’s, according to figures published this week by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The argument against sanctions is that while they may raise the cost for Russia, Putin has shown that he does not respond to higher costs in a rational calculating manner. But if that’s the case, then military aid for Ukraine won’t work either. No one believes that Kiev can actually prevail in a military contest with Moscow.
A recent think tank report urging military aid itself acknowledges that the aid package will merely raise the cost for the Kremlin in order to force it to then negotiate. In other words, the consensus is that the only possible strategy is to raise costs for Russia. The disagreement is really about what kinds of costs Vladimir Putin finds most onerous.
I think that military aid to Ukraine would stoke the fires of Russian nationalism, let Putin wrap himself in military colors and defend his, quote-unquote, “fellow Russians,” in an arena in which he will be able to ensure that Moscow prevails. For a regime that waged two bitter and costly wars in Chechnya, a region far less central to the Russian imagination than Ukraine, the loss of some men and money in a military operation is not likely to be much of a deterrent.
Why would the West want to move from its area of enormous strength, economic pressure, to an area where it will be outgunned in every sense?
If Russia breaks this fragile peace, then more sanctions should be considered. Senator Lindsey Graham recently offered the most honest reason why some in Washington are advocating military assistance. Even though it doesn’t seem likely to work, it’s a way of doing something in the face of Russian aggression.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I don’t know how this ends if you give them defensive capability but I know this. I will feel better because when my nation was needed to stand up to the garbage and stand by freedom, I stood by the freedom.
ZAKARIA: But the purpose of American foreign policy is not to make Lindsey Graham feel better. It is to actually achieve American objectives on the ground. That means picking your battles and weapons carefully.