President Obama’s speech in Brussels was important for one paragraph in which he warned that if Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine continues, Russia’s isolation will deepen and sanctions will expand.
This is what the Russian leadership needed to hear. For the moment, the Putin strategy of using external aggression to distract the Russian population from an evaluation of his regime’s crimes is a success. Russia is being swept with a wave of patriotic fervor. Putin’s approval rating has reached 80 percent, replicating the achievement of former president Dmitri Medvedev after the 2008 invasion of Georgia.
Russian public opinion, however, is notoriously volatile and sentiment could change rapidly once Russians understand that the seizure of Crimea will have a serious economic cost. This message will be clear to the Russian population only over time. But the Russian leadership will notice the atypically tough words buried in an anodyne speech from a normally overly accommodating president.
Russia is now locked into a confrontation with the West from which there is no easy exit. Putin cannot withdraw from Crimea without sacrificing the popularity the invasion was intended to provide. The U.S. cannot ignore the invasion without inviting further aggression and undermining the entire international system.
After six years of “reset,” Obama has finally grasped that trying to be “friends” with Russia does not work. Under these circumstances, Putin can only treat Russia as a “besieged fortress,” cutting it off from the international system and setting the conditions for his regime’s eventual demise.