ISIS. ISIS. ISIS.
Since the beginning of the ISIS insurgency in Iraq just a few weeks ago, the world’s attention has been focused squarely on containing – and possibly fighting – this dangerous organization.
To be sure, the implications of ISIS’s seizure of Iraqi territories are international in scope and effect. It is by no means an exaggeration to say that the fate of the Middle East, which has been in question for well over a decade now, hangs in the balance.
And while it is surely not my intention to downplay the seriousness of the threat that ISIS poses, I feel compelled to make mention of the fact that the situation in Ukraine remains dire. And it’s not getting the attention it deserves.
On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a request completely out of step with his past aggression in Ukraine. The request was made in the Federation Council – the Russian Senate – to repeal the authority they had previous given him to use the Russian military outside of Russia’s borders. The Council complied.
Why would Putin do such a thing? Giving up power – especially when you consider the fact that this was legitimate power as compared to an authoritarian power grab – is antithetical to his modus operandi.
It is my view that Putin made the request with a specific victory in mind: avoiding another round of debilitating sanctions.
On Friday, European leaders are set to discuss new sanctions against Russia, this time covering the banking sector. It is no secret that the first round of sanctions did little to hurt Putin, or the Russian economy for that matter. But a new round could have the potential to really cause damage.
Indeed, the Obama administration has drawn up plans to escalate sanctions against Russia by specifically targeting its financial, energy and defense industries. The administration issued a statement emphasizing the fact that Obama told Putin that although his talk of conciliation with Ukraine is a step in the right direction, “words must be accompanied by actions and the US is prepared to impose additional sanctions should circumstances warrant.”
The Obama administration has developed three options for further actions: banning any interactions with some of Russia’s largest banks; cutting off technology transfers to Russian energy and defense firms; and shutting down business with Russian defense companies. Each of these actions should be taken.
But European leaders have been hesitant to go as far as the US so as to protect their own businesses that are closely linked to Moscow. And especially if EU leaders sense that Putin is backing down, there is reason to think that Putin may get off easy – again.
None of this is to say that Putin doesn’t have cause to worry. If the US and EU both come down hard on Russia, he will be forced to be even more conciliatory. But if the past few months are any guide, it doesn’t seem likely that that will happen.
What’s more, Putin can also reverse his decision any time he wants by going back to the Federation Council.
The Obama administration is right to second-guess him and his intentions. He could easily be trying to talk conciliation while covertly continuing his support for the Ukrainian rebels. Many of Putin’s own allies and supporters have criticized him for backing down and he is most likely feeling pressure from them to carry on aggressively.
The upshot of all this is that very little has fundamentally changed in Ukraine and the threat that Putin poses is no less severe.
So while the situation in Iraq deserves our attention, it’s important that we don’t let Ukraine slip off the page.