Author: Ionel Banut (Babes-Bolyai University, Romania)

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea confirmed every realist’s expectations: powerful states are often self-interested, maintain fluid alliances and therefore act as they please.

In fact, any mentioning of “consequences”, as US President Barack Obama and other European leaders have conveyed numerous times since the beginning of the crisis, only serves to show the relatively limited array of instruments at the disposal of the international community when it comes to dealing with an incompliant powerful state.

On March 17th, the US and the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council announced their extended sanctions package, which includes travel bans and asset freezes on several Russian and Ukrainian officials, as well as supporting the deployment of a Special Monitoring Mission carried by the Organization for the Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE). This came only a few days after a United Nations Security Council draft resolution meant to block the recognition of the referendum was predictably vetoed by Russia, raising once again the question of the UN’s ability and even relevance in managing security crises.

Sanctions such as these are unlikely to have a significant impact on Putin’s foreign policy. Banning a few Russian oligarchs from traveling and freezing some of their assets, the extent of which is unknown even if they are part of Putin’s inner circle, has not caused anything more than a nuisance. Russia responded with counter-sanctions aimed at several American officials before resuming to strengthen its grip on Crimea by taking over Ukrainian military bases and ships. In doing so Russia proved that this kind of response amounts to nothing more than a simple formality – another factor to weigh in to an otherwise very cheap affair.

The sanctions employed at this stage are simply too narrow in their scope. In some ways, they might even aid Putin’s efforts.

For one, the fact that Obama talks about costs and consequences – vague terms which show likewise a vague commitment to a country whose integrity was guaranteed by the US and UK through the 1994 Budapest Memorandum – but then fails to deliver any meaningful response, confirms that Putin’s sphere of influence is real.

Secondly, transatlantic sanctions against Russia – otherwise referred to as Obama’s penchant for multilateral solutions – indeed depict a weak America. Putin’s Russia is so economically intertwined with the EU (i.e. the well-documented gas and trade relations) that this alone has neutralized the EU’s appetite for sanctions, thus lessening the effectiveness of the US discourse.

Putin, of course, is aware of how powerful America is, but this projected image is useful for rallying his home electorate. If Russians believe that America is declining and that Putin exposes Washington’s weakness, their support for the Russian President will grow, making it even easier for him to legitimize his actions.

Until now, Putin has succeeded in achieving this.  According to a recent Levada Center poll, two-thirds of the Russian population considers their country to be a superpower – this is a significant increase from 2011. No doubt, much of this is due to Moscow’s revival of the Russian military, which includes a 31% increase in defense spending between 2008 and 2013, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The increase in spending serves the acquisition of new aircrafts and tanks and is part of an ample reform package started under President Medvedev and due to be implemented by 2020. Furthermore, the reform package consists of the rearmament and the restructuring of Russia’s armed forces, which may allow Moscow to further expand its sphere of influence.

With the annexation of Crimea, it is likely that Putin will be remembered in his country’s history as a hero who restored, at least to some extent, Russia’s historic borders. The fireworks celebration in the Red Square, following Putin’s grandiose address in the Parliament, certainly points to such a mood. As does his approval rating of 75%, the highest in the last five years.

Finally, Russia takes refuge in the hypocrisy—perceived or real—of the United States and its allies. It was not so long ago that the United States and Europe (though not all European states) recognized the independence of Kosovo after a robust intervention that circumvented authorization from the UN Security Council. For those who feared that Kosovo might represent a precedent, here it is. The precedent was set and is now being used by Russia – strangely enough, a state that once fervently opposed it.

So how can the US have any moral claim on the subject of observing international law and respecting sovereignty when America has a good record of doing the opposite?

The American involvement in Nicaragua, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, over what turned out to be a false pretext, Obama’s drone policy in Pakistan, and the intervention in Libya are all examples of cases where US national interests trump concepts such as sovereignty.  Russia’s play for Crimea seems to fit this trend nicely.

Of course, one can argue that such comparisons are unfair, that Crimea and Kosovo, for example, have little in common.  Indeed, it would be highly cynical to compare the genocide in the Balkans and the humanitarian intervention that essentially put an end to it, to that of the situation in Crimea. But what they do have in common is the fact that both examples show how powerful states have been able to bend international law in order to meet their own interests – without suffering any real consequence.

Putin knows all of this very well. He sees America’s political gridlock, dysfunctional internal affairs and a war-fatigued domestic base. He knows that the European economy is too intertwined with that of Russia, so the threat of drastic economic actions is minimal.

Ultimately, Putin knows that the West simply does not care about Ukraine enough to go to war over it.  Until that threshold is reached, Putin’s sphere of influence will remain unchallenged.