Sanctions now imposed by the US and Europe against Russian policymakers are a first step, but, if Putin is to be stopped, tougher sanctions will be necessary, says DW's Ingo Mannteufel.
As a response to Sunday's illegal referendum in Crimea, the USA and the European Union have frozen the bank accounts and restricted the travel of a number of political decision-makers in Russia, Ukraine and Crimea. They are accused of having had a leading role in the process by which Russia has aggressively broken international law by bringing about the secession of Crimea from Ukraine.
There's no question but that these sanctions are largely symbolic. They are a final attempt by the West to get Russia to give way and enter into a political and diplomatic dialogue with the Ukrainian leadership.
But the declaration by Russian president Vladimir Putin recognizing Crimea as an independent state only shows that the Kremlin is continuing its existing policy. The next stage in the escalation of the crisis would be the formal assimilation of Crimea into the Russian Federation, which, from the Russian point of view, would finalize Crimea's annexation.
International treaties broken
If that happened, the West would have no alternative but to respond with tougher political and economic sanctions. It's true that the US and the EU have to remain realistic and cannot expect a sudden change in Russian policy, but they would be severely negligent if they simply accepted such an internationally illegal act on the part of Russia. Russia has not only ignored the Ukrainian constitution, it's broken several international treaties designed to ensure Europe's peace and order. If such behavior has no consequences, it could tempt Russia into further expansion: Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia or even Belarus could be its next targets.
It's true, too, that EU policy towards Russia over the last 20 to 25 years has not been marked by tact, or intelligence. But that shouldn't be a reason to allow it to occupy and annex part of a neighboring country in what is for all practical purposes an act of war - even if the people there approve. Questioning existing borders and national integrity is opening a Pandora's Box - especially for Russia itself.
Consequences for the whole of Europe
It's no longer just about Crimea, which Russia is not likely to give up so easily now. That has to be admitted. It's not even about Ukraine, or even just eastern Ukraine. There's much more at stake: it's about order and peace in Europe as a whole, and that must be worth more to the Europeans than a couple of euros on their gas bill.
And Europe and the US hold better cards than many assume. It looks as if Putin doesn't have a master plan - perhaps he hoped that the West would let him get away with his actions in the chaos of post-Yanukovych Ukraine. He probably thought that the West would just criticize a bit. Perhaps he still believes that the political outrage will die down and the West will not have the nerve to apply tougher sanctions. For years, Russians have been living under the false assumption that the West is dependent on Russian energy.
But if the West applies a consistent policy of international isolation, that will have an effect in Moscow. Not even China supports the Kremlin. Only the Assad regime in Syria and the North Korean pariah state have backed it. The Russians would notice exclusion from the G8, as they will notice the travel bans and frozen bank accounts.
In addition, the Russian economy is currently going through a period of stagnation. The fall in the value of the ruble has already had a negative effect on consumption, and thus on Russian prosperity. There's no way round a reduction in European trade with Russia. Cutbacks in energy exports would amount to slow suicide, as would the promised sale of Russian currency reserves. If it came to targeted economic sanctions by the West, they would have serious effects on Russia. It must be hoped that it won't come to that, but the West can only react to Putin's current policy with rigor and staying power.