The White House announced today that it is imposing a new round of sanctions on Russia, aimed specifically at people and companies close to President Vladimir Putin in response to the continuing crisis in Ukraine.
Here’s what will happen next: Republicans will say these sanctions are not nearly tough enough, and reflect Barack Obama’s weakness on foreign affairs. The White House will counter that they are, in fact, being as tough as possible.
But here’s the reality: the White House knows that these sanctions are unlikely to have much more than a small effect on the outcome of this crisis. And Republicans know that for all their posturing, they have no better ideas.
That isn’t to say that sanctions are completely meaningless; they may well provide a drag on the Russian economy that Putin will find inconvenient. They might play a role in making a negotiated settlement more likely. But Putin’s approval ratings right now are spectacular, and a conflict with the West will probably keep them high, substantially mitigating the pressure he feels to do what we want, rather than what he wants.
The fact is, our leverage over Putin’s actions, and over the outcome in Ukraine in general, is severely limited. In a way, this is a sign of a world that is much safer than it used to be.
Because what we don’t have at our disposal is the threat that if Russia doesn’t do what we want, we might just start World War III and vaporize every man, woman, and child on earth in a global nuclear conflagration, which was the threat that used to hang over every disagreement between us and the Soviets, no matter how minor. In 1962, we literally almost destroyed the human race over Cuba, for pete’s sake. That won’t happen this time, which is very good for the world (even if that isn’t much consolation if you’re a Ukrainian).
Obama’s foreign policy critics live in a fantasy world where the United States still enjoys enormous leverage over Russia and every other country, a world where we have the ability to bend any situation to our will if only we display enough resolve. Not only is that not true now, it wasn’t true back in the Cold War days for which they so obviously pine. We had “leverage” in the sense that we were more willing to exert pressure against the Soviets in the form of violence and subversion, but it didn’t always work, and even when it did it took a long time. For instance, in Nicaragua we didn’t like the fact that there was a communist revolution in 1979 that overthrew the brutal dictator who happened to be a client of ours. So we started a proxy war against the Sandinista government, spent lots of money and had our representatives kill lots of people, broke a bunch of American laws, and a mere 11 years later, the Sandinistas lost an election. Which was not exactly a stunning display of our leverage, and in that case we were talking about a tiny country in our backyard.
The fact that the U.S. and Russia aren’t waging proxy wars around the globe against one another anymore is a good thing for humanity, even if in this case it makes us feel impotent. That doesn’t mean that terrible things aren’t still occurring, or that we shouldn’t do everything we can to punish Russia for what it’s doing in Ukraine. But right now, both sides of our domestic political divide are pretending. The White House is pretending that it has the ability to determine what happens there, and Republicans are pretending that if they were in charge, they would have that ability. And since everyone wants to believe that the United States’ power is without limit, it’s in both their interests to go on pretending.