WESTERN LEADERS boast that the sanctions slapped on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine are inflicting real pain, and that’s true — even if Russia’s macroeconomic indicators still don’t look worse than those of France, Italy or even Germany. But there’s no indication that the punishment is having a salutary effect on Vladimir Putin. In a quick but high-profile trip to meet leaders in Milan last week, the Russian ruler was no more disposed than he has been to retreat from Ukraine or his larger neoimperialist agenda.
A late-night meeting Thursday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a breakfast the next day with other Western leaders and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko were “full of contradictions and misunderstanding” a Kremlin spokesman said. In between, Mr. Putin puckishly paid a wee-hours visit to former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is notorious for his soft line on the Kremlin. Before leaving Italy he gave a news conference at which he repeatedly referred to eastern Ukraine as “Novorossiya,” a 19th-century czarist term that conveys his conviction that the region should rightly be ruled from Moscow.
While Mr. Putin cavorts, the forces he controls in Ukraine are still attacking government positions at the Donetsk airport and elsewhere, in spite of a Sept. 5 cease-fire that he says he supports. At his news conference, he said the first priority of would-be peacemakers should be to finalize a territorial line separating Ukrainian territory from that of Russian-backed forces. Of course: that would allow the consolidation of Novorossiya as a statelet that Mr. Putin could use to keep Ukraine in a perpetual state of instability.
To her credit, Ms. Merkel is staking out a firm position, perhaps because she has spent more time than any other Western leader talking to Mr. Putin about Ukraine. On Monday she said, “There’s a long way to a cease-fire, unfortunately,” and added that Russia would have to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity “not just on paper” before sanctions could be lifted. That added weight to comments last week by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who — even as he tried to promote U.S.-Russian cooperation on other issues — said Russia would have to withdraw “heavy equipment” and allow its border with Ukraine “to be properly monitored and secured” to win sanctions relief.
Mr. Putin is unlikely ever to meet those terms. To do so would doom Novorossiya, which can’t survive without military and material support from Russia. As the sanctions bite, he is as liable to escalate his aggression as to offer concessions. Russian provocations throughout Europe continue — over the weekend Sweden was trying to determine if a submarine had penetrated its territorial waters. The Baltic members of NATO — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — fear a test by Mr. Putin of NATO’s commitment to defend them.
In orchestrating sanctions, the Obama administration has managed to preserve a unified transatlantic front and impose tougher measures than Mr. Putin likely expected. But the administration hasn’t stopped Russia’s meddling in Ukraine, much less fostered consensus on a broader Western strategy for containing Mr. Putin. That should now become the focus of U.S.-European consultations.
Read more on this issue: