Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Russia must be tested

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U.S. President Barack Obama sounded liked a defeated man this week when he said he did not expect Russia to remove its troops from Crimea, saying he and his allies had nothing but legal arguments, negotiations and tepid sanctions to throw at Russia.

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(DALE CUMMINGS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

He said sanctions could increase if Russian President Vladimir Putin seized more Ukrainian territory, thus drawing a line in the sand that did not sound terribly convincing.

That does not mean, however, Crimea has been relegated to a footnote in the long history of shifting borders in eastern Europe.

The allied leaders, including Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, have made it clear they will never accept Crimea's fate as a Russian appendage. The UN General Assembly also voted overwhelmingly Thursday to condemn the annexation.

As economic historian Robert McGarvey said on these pages recently, the West's resolve to isolate Russia over its behaviour in Ukraine and Crimea may have a far bigger impact than Mr. Putin and his fellow kleptocrats have anticipated. Mr. McGarvey says Russia's political isolation is having a ripple effect on its economy and financial institutions that could severely weaken its ability to conduct business in the global environment.

Visa and MasterCard, for example, no longer wish to do business with Russian banks. Their elimination of processing services has nothing to do with moral outrage over Crimea, but with the simple fact that doing business with Russia now carries political risks. If there's one thing entrepreneurs do not like, it is uncertainty.

The world bank has also warned Russia's economy could be severely hurt if sanctions are increased.

Far worse for Russia, however, is the fact the European powers are now reassessing their options for acquiring energy. Currently, Russia is a major supplier of natural gas, but the price of that cheap energy is now being viewed as a liability because of the leverage it provides to Mr. Putin.

If the Europeans decide to switch to nuclear power or find new suppliers elsewhere, it could devastate the Russian economy.

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(DALE CUMMINGS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

These concerns may be on his mind as he considers his next moves in the region, particularly whether to annex parts of southern and eastern Ukraine, where sympathetic Russian-speaking populations might also welcome annexation.

The issue in Crimea was never whether the people had a right to choose, but how it was done. The referendum was held over a two-week period with only two possible answers -- join Russia or become an independent state.

The sovereign power, Ukraine, was not allowed to participate, and its troops on the peninsula were cornered and outnumbered by Russian troops masquerading as local self-defence forces.

If Ukraine had held a properly constructed referendum following a campaign that outlined the various issues, no one would complain the result was unfair if Crimea decided to go its own way.

The Russian-orchestrated vote, however, held under the barrel of a gun, has no validity.

It is unlikely Mr. Putin will relinquish his latest prize, but western pressure could prevent him from going further. In the long term, it could also lead to a comprehensive set of negotiations on relations between Russia and the West, since it is in everyone's interest to lower the temperature and resume normal relations.

Mr. Putin may turn out to be an immovable object, more interested in empire than prosperity, but his resolution must be tested.

That can only be done if the major western powers remain determined to isolate and marginalize Mr. Putin for his cynical and unlawful intrusion on the sovereignty of a country and people who posed no threat to his own.

Mr. Putin is sneering at western finger-pointing now, but he may end up laughing all the way to the dustbin of history.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 28, 2014 A10

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