I’ve written before that Vladimir Putin is an inflexible and brazen leader who likes to snub his nose at the world while grinning and accepting cheers from Russians who long for the days when their country was considered a “super power.”
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Those who admire him say he displays true leadership and decisiveness; those who fear him wonder where his attention will be drawn to next.
Not surprisingly, those countries that border Russia and that once belonged to the Soviet empire are a little nervous right now, and you can understand why. The annexation of Crimea is being called the smoothest invasion of modern times. As the West considered its options it was basically over before it even started.
This was no Russian invasion on the scale of Hungary or Czechoslovakia -- this time an army of “volunteers” wearing unidentifiable fatigues quickly took control of key areas in Crimea. As Kiev and the West sputtered in outrage, the outcome was already written.
It was quick, well planned and frighteningly efficient.
In response, media reaction from Russia’s neighboring countries has been at the very least pessimistic and in many cases critical of the West’s tepid response.
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A Polish political writer says the West should show the desire to fight for Western values such as stability, security, law and democracy. He concludes by saying… “So far, no flicker of this desire is discernible among Western leaders.”
In Latvia and Lithuania, the media responses have been more alarmist with both countries talking about scenarios of Russian invasion and both concluding that they could be on Moscow’s wish list.
Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuania’s first Head of State following independence from the Soviet Union, says the "escalating war against Ukraine" reminded him of hearing air raid warnings on Radio Warsaw as a child at the start of World War II.
The Lithuanian ambassador to Ukraine declared,”There is no reason to think that the aggressor will stop or that Crimea will be enough."
A Czech daily Newspaper simply had the headline: “Why is Vladimir Putin doing it? Because he wants to!" The paper goes on to talk about the West’s helplessness.
A Georgian newspaper put out an article that surmised that the West has few options to respond to the Kremlin’s aggression, the front page headline stated - "Ridiculous sanctions - the West's punishment is greeted with ironic amusement in Moscow.”
And that begs the question whether “tougher” sanctions could wipe that smile from Moscow’s face? The quick answer is yes, but it is complicated and it’s not without negative implications for Western governments.
Analysts say an escalation of sanctions could include import/export bans. Specific Russian firms could also be targeted and the US and Europe might also restrict Russian banks and corporations from access to finance.
All of this could backfire; targeting Russian companies, especially those involved in energy, could lead to interruptions in supply and skyrocketing prices. Also, any financial shocks involving Russian banks could impact banking systems in the West.
But before any of this could be considered, you have to have agreement among EU member states and that’s as easy as herding cats. For now the European leaders are talking a good game and there appears to be strong political will both in Europe and the US.
As President Obama promised - "If Russia continues to interfere in Ukraine, we stand ready to impose further sanctions."
You can bet Mr. Putin is still smiling.