Not much hope was attached to the meeting of the US, EU, Ukraine, and Russia over the crisis between the latter two countries. Again, the usual suspects were saying that the West had no leverage over Russia, Ukraine was in chaos, and Vladimir Putin held all the cards.
Then a deal was struck.
The particulars are these:
- Illegal military formations must be dissolved
- Occupied buildings must be vacated and their occupiers disarmed
- Ukraine would grant an amnesty to pro-Russian protesters
- The Ukrainian political discussion would touch on "inclusivity", another word for decentralization
- All steps are to be overseen by the OSCE, to which both the US and Russia belong
From the Right, President Obama has been castigated for "appeasement" and a "lack of resolve". From the louder segments of the Left, he's been upbraided for daring to intervene when after Iraq the US had no moral authority.
Pres. Obama didn't give in to the hawks who wanted US warships moved into the Black Sea en masse and a buildup of NATO troops on the western borders of Ukraine. And he dismissed the idea that because of the Iraqi misadventure the US had lost all right to speak on the violation of another country's territorial sovereignty.
He made it clear from the outset that military force against Russia was not an option. And he made it clear that the US would stand up for Ukraine's rights, in spite of recent history.
Russia, for all its bluster, is a failed Potemkin state. Its economy is vulnerable to outside pressure, as an exporter of energy and raw materials. And the world's banking system dances to the tune set by the US.
Thus, when the first sanctions put forth by Pres. Obama were the freezing of accounts of Putin's close cronies and the banks they used, the banks—Rossiya and SMP—almost overnight were unable to do business with the world financial system; Mastercard and Visa refused to process credit card payments, which are the lifeblood of any modern economy. And that was just the first, relatively minor warning shot.
Russia was already cutting its economic growth forecast as early as autumn of 2013. Now a zero percent growth rate due to the fallout from Ukraine is possible. All this as the US and its Western allies—brought along by the moral standing which Pres. Obama has worked hard to re-establish after the Iraq fiasco—kept hinting at stronger measures against Moscow.
Vladimir Putin, scion of the KGB, believed that changing the facts on the ground would present the West with a fait accompli which it was too decadent and timorous to reverse.
What he found instead was that Barack Obama understood where true power lay in the 21st century. It wasn't with a glorified warlord pushing around soldiers on a battlefield map. It lays in finance, trade, economic strength. In that arena, he knew Russia couldn't compete, for all its bravado. Militarily, Russia can threaten neighbors; but it doesn't have the economic weight to maintain that posture for very long, and certainly not if it's cut off from the world economy.
It's no coincidence that the Ukraine deal was agreed to just as the US and the West were ready to impose stiffer sanctions, ratcheting up the damage to the Russian economy even further. The deal will put off those sanctions for the moment, until Putin's full faith and credit can be assessed. But sanctions are like a spigot, unlike military action. Once a country builds up a military force to attack, it either has to use it or disband it back to its bases. Sanctions can be turned on when events warrant. Pres. Putin would be well advised to not think he's just buying time. Any hint that he's not acting as an honest broker will bring sanctions back. Europe is united behind Pres. Obama, as it sees 60 years of peace threatened by a revanchist Russia. It will keep the threat of sanctions on the table if Russia reneges on its commitments.
This is what Pres. Obama, more than any other current world leader, understands. In a world as interconnected as ours, you don't have to let missiles fly at the hint of any crisis. There are tools more effective and more crushing than military strength. The military should be a last resort; once unleashed, the consequences are difficult to predict. Putin underestimated the West's resolve, and Pres. Obama's character. In the 21st century the strengths of a community organizer serve international relations better than those of a former spymaster. It's fortunate for Russia that staring at it across the table was Barack Obama; almost anyone else would have unleashed a war by now.