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Bring Putin to reason

Bernd Riegert / gswMarch 4, 2014

The EU is confronted with a dilemma. It must force Russia to accept boundaries without causing an escalation of the crisis. That calls for quick and decisive action, writes DW's Bernd Riegert.

Bernd Riegert
DW's Bernd Riegert

How does one stop a head of state with autocratic tendencies, who brutally pursues his interests without regard to how others will view him? Questions like these topped the Monday (03.03.2014) EU foreign ministers meeting, as well as a day earlier at a NATO summit in Brussels. There's no simple answer apart from using military force and risking an incalculable conflict. Vladimir Putin is a man of the past because he is still trapped in the old thinking patterns of the Cold War. By intervening in Crimea, he has clearly shown that he clings to an entitlement to the former Soviet Union's sphere of influence.

Putin is a former KGB officer - an apparatchik, a ruthless politician, hardly a democrat and certainly not one "through and through," as former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder claimed years ago. Lamentable as it may be, Putin now has Russia firmly in his grip. That's why other nations have to deal with him and get along with him in order to prevent worse things from happening.

The gut feeling is that the EU must now demonstrate its strength, but reason says attempts must be made to appease Russia, to include the country and draw it into diplomacy. That's exactly what the EU foreign ministers are trying first by just considering sanctions and calling on Russia to de-escalate the situation. Will that be enough? What happens if Vladimir Putin follows his own logic?

Confrontation or placation?

The pattern at play is nothing new and has repeated itself throughout history. A ruler marches into a country because minorities or his countrymen there have supposedly issued pleas for help. The ruler occupies part of the country in order to ward off dangers. Adolf Hitler did the same in 1938 when he annexed parts of Czechoslovakia. In order to avoid misunderstandings, Putin is not to be compared with Hitler. The Sudetenland is not Crimea. The circumstances differ, but the pattern can be recognized. That paradigm was also on display when Putin occupied the separatist Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and Ossetia in 2008.

It's the same now with the supposed help for Russians living in Crimea. As in 1938 and 2008, the democratic community is looking on at the aggressor's nefarious actions because no one wants to risk a war over a relatively small stretch of land.

The Russian president knows as much and can be relatively sure that the Western democracies will indeed protest or perhaps issue sanctions but that they will not react with serious violence. This calculation also worked in 2008. Diplomatic frustrations and conference cancellations could initially be seen, but the normalization of relations with Russia and its important economy followed relatively quickly.

EU, USA must reach agreement

It's important for the EU to show solidarity now. If Russia manages to drive a wedge into the European phalanx, it will be a loss for Europe. The EU also needs to stand shoulder to shoulder with the US because Putin will only be moved by a show of strength. The EU and US have to hit him where he's vulnerable. He could get by with removal from the G8; only noticeable economic sanctions will inflict any pain.

However, restricting trade and financial relations with Russia would also cost the West money and sacrifices, and they bring the risk of an escalation with them. The incalculable Putin could cut off oil and gas deliveries to the EU. Finding a short-term replacement would be difficult for the political bloc. On the other hand, Putin also couldn't hold out for long with that approach because he's very much dependent on the foreign cash flow in order to finance his enormous empire.

A signal to Putin and aid to Ukraine

The EU's foreign ministers are starting out with the lowest level of escalation. There's little other choice at the moment without falling back into the Cold War mindset of bloc confrontation. But the EU, US and the IMF must urgently help the provisional Ukrainian government financially in order to stabilize the economically ravaged country. The EU also has to convince the transitional government to reinstate laws intended to protect the Russian minority and Russian language in order to prevent Putin from having even a trace of justification for his actions.

The EU has little time given how quickly the situation in Crimea can change. At the special summit planned for Thursday (06.03.2014), the heads of state involved must decide whether Russia can be engaged in dialogue and whether sanctions are to follow. It would be best if US President Barack Obama also took part in the meeting to demonstrate the West's solidarity.