Punish Putin – really

Over the past two weeks, I spent six days doing work experience at the Week. The magazine aims to give readers a summary of the week’s news and what the national and foreign media had to say on it, and so I spent many hours scouring the web’s top blogs for any interesting editorial content. So I watched, almost in real time, the world’s reaction to the MH17 disaster.

By Monday, the editorial columns were all spewing the same message: the West had to stand up to Putin. (Russia Today, meanwhile, kept insisting that Ukraine had designed the tragedy to turn the West against Russia – a story which became increasingly convoluted as more and more evidence to the contrary emerged). And yet for all the moral outrage, which felt more than a little self-righteous, none of the editorials really promoted any solid policies. “Punish him,” they crooned, “but we can’t tell you how”. And all gave politicians room for inaction – “whatever you do, don’t jeopardise the gas supply” could have been the headline on every broadsheet.

Nevertheless, pressure did grow, and the politicians predictably fell over themselves rushing to look tough on Putin. Cameron wrote a cringe-worthy letter to the Times, vowing to lead Europe in imposing punitive sanctions against the Russian President and his numerous cronies. Yet Germany, the EU’s diplomatic heavyweight, fretted about all that gas, and France went ahead with the sale of a new warships to Russia’s army.

It was a poor showing, where economic self-interest won over any sense of moral duty. It was also a depressing example of short-termism; Cameron was actually right when he raised the spectre of appeasement. Putin is no Hitler, obviously, but the same logic applies – the more he is allowed to do, the more he will do. It was the same in Syria, where the bloodshed hasn’t stopped since last year’s chemical weapons attack went unpunished by the West. As many warned, the rebel’s resentment of their neglect grew, and out of the chaos came ISIS – which is now presenting the biggest threat to Western security since al-Qaeda in its early-2000s heyday. Inaction has unintended consequences too.

The last few years have proved the West weak and divided. Where once it stood for decisive action, it is now a mass of dithering. So what, really, could the West do about Putin?

Sanctions. At the moment, Western sanctions only affect a dozen or so of Putin’s cronies. They basically don’t do anything. Instead, trade with Russia should be wound down, putting its economy under some serious strain. Russia should be unceremoniously thrown out of the G8 and G20; and NATO should make its remaining power felt by beefing up its forces  in Eastern Europe. This isn’t about threatening a new Cold War, but making it clear that the current world order will be protected – and that there are consequences to shooting a civilian airliner out of the sky.

Putin’s main concern has always been his domestic support. Causing the already anti-Putin Muscovite middle-class some economic pain will force him to make concessions in order to remain powerful at home; not least reeling in the Eastern rebels in Ukraine and stopping transfers of weapons across the border. This may take a few weeks as he seems to have lost his control of the situation, so in the immediate future he needs to secure access to the crash site for international observers and stop the rebels tampering with the evidence.

There comes a time when a sense of right and wrong should take priority over economic calculation. 298 people were shot from the sky, they deserve justice – gas supply or not.

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