Eric Posner on Our "Doomed" Responses to Crimea

What to Do About Crimea? Nothing.

Everyone agrees that the West should tighten the screws on Russia, but no one is sure why. Russia will never return Crimea to Ukraine; and even if Russia were willing, the West could hardly demand that Crimea be handed back against the will of the Crimeans themselves. It is widely and enthusiastically said that Russia should be punished. But punished for doing what, exactly, and how? The West can’t win this contest, and we shouldn’t try.

The West finds itself in a difficult position for a number of reasons: Start with the sanctions. Sanctions are famously ineffective. Countries don’t like imposing sanctions because sanctions hurt them as much as the target. Europe could certainly sanction Russia by refusing to buy gas, but then Europeans would freeze through the chilly spring while Russia sold its gas to other buyers. The evidence suggests that sanctions are effective only when nearly all countries gang up on a relatively weak country. That’s not going to happen to Russia. It’s not a weak country, and China and India have taken its side.

Some people think that “smart sanctions” targeted at Putin’s pals, the oligarchs, could make a difference. But the oligarchs luxuriate in their riches because they support Putin, not the other way around. Putin will ensure that they don’t feel too much pain. He can give them more state contracts at better terms. He can instruct Russian banks to lend to them against their frozen assets, which will eventually be thawed. He can hand over wads of cash to them. They can’t travel to London or New York anymore, but it’s a big world.