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A supposedly apocryphal British newspaper headline once read, “Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off.” A similar headline appeared in today’s Financial Times about the world’s largest country: “Crimea Poll Isolates Russia.” This, though, is not an example of British self-regard but of an absolute truth. With its takeover of Crimea, a diminished empire has diminished itself further. If Russia were a stock, I’d sell it short.
From all indications, Europe and America will not abide Vladimir Putin’s total disregard of the rule of the game. Europe was ravaged by two wars in the last century. The body count was appalling –as many as 80 million died – and the continent was devastated. In its capitals – Berlin, Warsaw, etc. – hardly a building was left standing. The center of Dresden was incinerated. Hamburg, too, went up in flames. Europe learned a ghastly lesson.
This lesson was either lost or disregarded by Putin. He has his reasons, we all know. Crimea is Russian. It was always a part of Russia. It’s the Russian seashore, where both Chekhov and Stalin went to summer. But Europe has always been full of such anomalies – parts of Germany stuck in Poland, parts of Russia isolated by Germany. In the past, these were the cause –or the pretext –for war.
So Europe established an edifice of treaties and agreements. It adopted an ethic to contain nationalism and to deem abhorrent just the sort of thing Putin just did. The result will be international sanctions and they will have some bite. Russia is no longer a country and an economy unto itself. It has a stock exchange. It trades with Europe. Its oligarchs fuel the London real estate market – a bit of New York’s as well. Their yachts clog the tony harbors at Monte Carlo and Saint Bart’s. They cannot like what is about to happen.
The sanctions so far are a joke –travel bans and such. More substantial ones will be on the way. Russia’s central bank is bracing for what’s coming. But these measures, even if they truly hurt, are not what will isolate Moscow. Instead, it is the mask that has been lifted from Putin’s face. He has declared himself. He has shown he’s not willing to play by the rules if he doesn’t like the rules. From now on, Putin will be the odd man out, the European leader that other leaders cannot trust. His word is worthless. No more can he flash his smile and rely on the picture to obscure his deeds. The tale that émigrés tell of a ruler who simply takes what he wants has been substantiated in Crimea.
He just took it.