“Condemnation is not enough”

That’s the title of the Washington Post’s editorial on Ukraine. The subtitle is “As Russian troops operate in Crimea, the West responds with phone calls.” This doesn’t match John’s memorable headline — “Russia invades Ukraine, Obama declares happy hour” — but it isn’t bad.

The Post’s editors write:

Missing from the president’s statement was a necessary first step: a demand that all Russian forces — regular and irregular — be withdrawn from all parts of Crimea outside the Sevastopol naval base and that Moscow recognize the authority of the Kiev government in the region. If Mr. Putin does not comply, Western leaders should make clear that Russia will pay a heavy price — not just in “condemnation,” but in economic and diplomatic sanctions.

What’s the argument against economic and diplomatic sanctions? Presumably, as Max Boot notes (without approval), it’s the fact that Russia “is an important power that Washington hesitates to antagonize because of a general feeling that we need Russian help to deal with Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and other important issues.”

But Russia has shown that, like any serious country with ambition, it will help us in these countries and elsewhere only to the extent that doing so serves its interests. In Syria, for example, Russia’s interest lies in keeping Assad in power. Thus, Putin was happy to help Obama worm his way out taking military action against Syria after Assad crossed the “red line” by using chemical weapons, but unwilling to help John Kerry negotiate an agreement at Geneva under which Assad would give up any power.

It is foolish, therefore, for the U.S. to eschew sanctions against Russian and/or senior Russian leaders who have built up huge bank accounts and portfolios in the West out of fear that doing so will cause Russia to stop “helping” us. Russia will continue to act based on how it calculates its interests. The only potential impact of sanctions would be to change the calculus of Russian interests by providing a much needed incentive for Putin to curb his aggression.

That’s the reset we need in our relations with the Russian bear.