WASHINGTON, April 16, 2014 — As the situation in Ukraine continues to deteriorate and is now careening toward civil war, Western powers are again considering moving against Russia. In addition to discussions of sanctions and isolation from international organizations, some are now considering either arming Ukraine’s military or even direct military action.
Despite the increasingly bold actions by Russia in Ukraine, and its efforts to secure influence throughout the region, the West has responded limply, at best.
Part of the reason for the impotent action is the international entanglement between Russia and the West, and the dangers of alienating Moscow.
For some, moving against Russia carries enormous risks.
Following are just five risks for the West in taking harsh action that potentially would alienate Russia:
1. Iran. Late last year, Iran and major world leaders reached a deal under which Iran halted parts of its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief and the possibility of the end of international isolation. While the deal has significant flaws and major questions remain about Iranian intentions, the deal is widely heralded as a first foray into talks, and the precursor to a more comprehensive agreement.
As the crisis in Ukraine has escalated and the international community has condemned Russia, a Moscow business journal let it slip that Russia and Iran were negotiating a major oil-for-goods deal. Under that agreement, Russia would buy 500,000 barrels of oil a day from Iran. If the deal actually happens, the impact of international sanctions against Iran will be neutered. Iran would have virtually no incentive to agree to any nuclear deal and the West will have lost its leverage.
2. Syria. Russia has already complicated Western efforts to take action in Syria by using its veto in the U.N. Security Council to reject sanctions, military action or even condemnation of the regime of Bashir al-Assad. President Vladmir Putin negotiated a last-minute deal with Assad to turn over his chemical weapons for destruction, avoiding President Obama’s “red line” threats of military action.
According to that deal, Syria must hand over chemical weapons by the end of April for destruction by the end of June.
International organizations say it now appears unlikely Assad will meet the deadline. Fighting on the evacuation route may be slowing the weapons removal, or Assad may calculate that the international community is distracted with Ukraine and is no longer watching Syria. In either case, the deadline is in jeopardy.
If Russia takes an even harder line stand against Western interests and refuses to cooperate in ensuring chemical weapons destruction, the Syrian situation could deteriorate even further.
3. Weapons inspections. Russia has threatened to pull out of the inspections required under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) treaty with the United States and a separate treaty with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The new START agreement was geared at reducing warhead stockpiles and ensuring there is no new buildup. Russia already has a significant advantage in terms of the number of reserve and tactical nuclear weapons, and abandoning the agreement could make the numbers even more lopsided.
Disrupting the weapons inspections program raises a myriad of concerns and will raise long-term tensions between Russia and the West.
4. International cooperation. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has become a major player in international organizations. The West already suspended Russia from the Group of 8, and there is talk of removing it from the World Trade Organization, which has caused little backlash so far.
However, many efforts are truly international, and ending Russian participation could damage those global initiatives. Intelligence sharing over terrorists, for example, could suffer if tensions with Russia increase. Likewise, money laundering initiatives depend on Russian participation. Russia currently holds the presidency of the Financial Action Task Force, and a meeting of the organization is scheduled in Moscow from June 16 to 20.
Russia has made major strides in countering money laundering, terrorist financing and prohibiting banking by those seeking to break sanctions. If Russia backslides on those initiatives, it would provide a haven for illegal financial activities beyond the reach of Western regulators.
5. Oil and gas. Much of Europe is highly dependent on Russian energy, and Russia has demonstrated its willingness to use oil and natural gas to achieve its goals. It has cut off gas supplies during the coldest winter months to bend countries to its will, and will not hesitate to take the same action again. Even stepped up supplies from the United States could not replace Russian oil and gas flows. For the EU, this is a major deterrent to pushing Russia too far.
Russia has successfully maneuvered into a position of global strength, making it difficult for the West to muster support to seriously punish Moscow for its incursion into Ukraine.
The question now is at what point the risks of inaction outweigh any potential Russian retribution, and how much the world is willing to sacrifice to avoid Moscow’s wrath.