President Vladimir Putin is obliged to feign indifference to the sanctions that the European Union and the United States imposed on Russia this week. But, being the player that he is, he must know that he faces two very serious problems: the sanctions will seriously affect his country’s ability to borrow and will also hinder investment in the energy sector, Russia’s core business; more important, however, is the fact that his actions in Ukraine have prompted a united response from a West that, until now, had been seriously divided.
Putin managed to unite a West which he had derided as decaying and divided. Ironically, he did so in precisely the same way he manipulates his own people – by presenting them with a common enemy. In the past few months, as Russia undermined Ukraine’s territorial integrity and European countries failed to forge a coherent position, Moscow encouraged its citizens to believe that they faced an enemy which disliked them simply for being Russian, that Western countries wanted to impose rules by which they themselves did not abide. Presenting the EU and the US as an enemy – and a weak and hypocritical one at that – had the desired affect of uniting the Russians squarely behind their government.
Until recently, Putin also benefited from the fact that the United States did not consider Russia a serious adversary. Washington was more concerned with developments in East Asia, and, despite differences over regional issues such as Kosovo and Syria, relations between the US and Russia were mostly indifferent. Also, until the Ukraine crisis, EU countries paid little attention to the need for defense and security policies and for the stability of their energy supply. EU divisions have been blamed for encouraging Kiev to improve ties with Brussels without member-states agreeing on what those closer ties meant. They were unprepared to deal with Russia when it reacted angrily to the EU-Ukraine partnership.
The first round of sanctions that the US and the EU imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea was not as crippling as those imposed on Iran and North Korea. This reflected the generally indifferent relationship between Washington and Moscow, as well as the lack of cohesion between EU states, with each country’s business, trade and energy interests determining the force of its response to Russia’s actions.
The new sanctions mean business. The shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, with the loss of 298 lives, on July 17, concentrated minds in the West. Putin did not seize the opportunity of the disaster to distance Russia from its proxies in Ukraine, allowing the separatists, who are suspected of downing the airliner, to toy with the grief of families by controlling the site with the plane’s debris and passengers’ remains. This cynical behavior forced EU countries to set aside their national interests and to act as one, in unison with the US.