The announcement of an agreement at four-party talks on Ukraine Thursday is a major step toward defusing the crisis. This first step may pull us back from what has been called “the worst threat to peace in Europe since the Cold War.”
Russia promised to begin to pull its troops back if the situation de-escalates, as hoped. NATO is likely to continue its increased naval and air patrolling in the Baltic region to calm those NATO nations closest to the situation. Ironically, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moves have scared our European NATO allies and may have done more to boost their military spending than any lecture from the U.S. ever accomplished.
Meanwhile, Putin clearly has decided to step back from the growing confrontation. It is less clear whether the demonstrators in Ukraine will go along and, if they do not, how they will be compelled to vacate the occupied government buildings, and by whom. Looking back at the crisis, it is clear that Putin has paid little for his actions and has gained a huge boost in his popularity at home.
Western sanctions against Russian officials had no effect and the threat of stiffer sanctions lacked credibility. Russia’s growing global role limits what sanctions can do. Forty percent of the titanium used in Boeing jetliners comes from a Russian company, U.S. oil and gas companies and food exporters have long-term contracts with Russian firms. Indeed, the U.S. is dependent on Russia to ferry our astronauts to the International Space Station, to get our equipment out of Afghanistan, and to keep the Iranian nuclear and Syrian chemical weapons efforts on track. So it is not only the Europeans who would have balked at stiffer sanctions.
Throughout this crisis it has been clear that nothing the West can do compares to the tools at Putin’s disposal anyway. On top of the threat posed by the troops along Ukraine’s border, Putin scored propaganda points by arguing that the West was deliberately stoking this conflict to turn Russia and Ukraine against each other.