March 17, 2014 6:06 pm

Preparing for Putin’s next move

The west must be ready if Russia escalates its intervention in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has demonstrated beyond doubt his determination to be ruthless in pursuit of his country’s interests in Ukraine. On Monday the moment finally arrived for the US and EU to spell out to the Kremlin leader what the costs of his aggression must be.

In the aftermath of Sunday’s referendum on independence in Crimea, there was never any doubt that the west would have to muster a firm response. The people of Crimea went to the polls at gunpoint after Russia had flooded the peninsula with its own forces. The Kremlin engineered a relentless propaganda campaign to secure a resounding vote for secession. While Russian speakers in Crimea may form the majority of the population, the resulting Yes vote of 96.77 per cent carries an air of Stalinist election techniques rather than sound democratic principles.

Russia’s occupation of Crimea has violated international law – as Saturday’s UN Security Council vote would have shown had Moscow not deployed its veto to stifle the world’s censure. The aggressive redrawing of Ukraine’s boundaries is an affront to rules that have governed Europe since the end of the cold war. In response, the US and EU could do no less than impose visa bans and asset-freezes on scores of senior Russian figures, including some of Mr Putin’s closest advisers.

Nobody should assume that these sanctions will be enough to curb the Kremlin. It is far from clear that Mr Putin’s thirst to revenge the toppling of his ally in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, has been sated. The Russian leader, who addresses his parliament today, may now decide to incorporate Crimea directly into the Russian Federation, completing the process initiated by the stealthy invasion of the peninsula using unmarked militia men.

Nor can the possibility be excluded that he will go further, dispatching his military into eastern Ukraine under the pretext of protecting Russian-speaking communities. Ultimately Mr Putin may be satisfied with nothing less than the complete dismemberment of Ukraine. He may be of the view that if the Ukrainian state does not want to be allied to Russia, it should not be a state at all.

Given this risk, western powers should prepare to respond firmly to any further escalation. EU heads of government meeting in Brussels on Thursday should lay out a tougher range of economic sanctions to be imposed if there is fresh Russian intervention. Agreeing these sanctions will be a big test of the bloc’s unity, given Europe’s dependence on Russia for its energy. But the EU must decide whether it attaches more importance to its international credibility than its commercial interest.

Of course, the door should be left open to a settlement, should Mr Putin be prepared to step back – even at this late hour. But the Russian foreign ministry’s statement on Monday outlining its criteria for talks is scarcely encouraging.

True, it is welcome that Russia is endorsing the creation of a “contact group” of diplomats to mediate the crisis. But, the west should be wary of this diplomatic tactic. Russia’s demand for the world to respect Crimea’s right “to determine its own destiny” is firmly at odds with Kiev’s insistence that the peninsula is part of Ukraine territory. Nor can any negotiation begin while the military situation remains unchanged. The west can deal with Russia only after it has withdrawn its troops from the streets of Crimea and the border with Ukraine.

When Mr Putin addresses the Duma, it may become clear what his next move will be. However, we should be under no illusions about him. His government has produced a diplomatic note after annexing a large chunk of European territory by force. This is an affront to anyone with a sense of Europe’s history.

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