Zakaria: Sanctions against Russia are just symbolic
March 6th, 2014
01:59 PM ET

Zakaria: Sanctions against Russia are just symbolic

CNN speaks with Fareed Zakaria about the latest developments in Ukraine, newly announced sanctions against Russia, and what the United States can and should do moving forward.

The parliament in Crimea voted to join Russia, and they've called for a referendum 10 days from now to let the people there vote. Does this pose a problem for the United States? What if the people there vote to become part of Russia?

Exactly, because if we believe that the people's voice should be heard, the people of Crimea should decide what they want. As has been said, it’s 60 percent Russian majority – there's a large group of people who are historically tied to Russia.

Remember, Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, and it was gifted in a kind of internal transfer, because it was all part of the Soviet Union. Khrushchev, the then-Soviet leader, transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine, but all within the one country, the Soviet Union. So, it sort of stayed part of Russia until 1991. This means Ukraine hasn’t really had Crimea that long.

What's likely to happen is a referendum would go in the direction of Russia, and the Ukrainian parliament would not accept that referendum. And so then what you have is two different legal realities, but the political and military reality, of course, is that Russia will have taken over Crimea.

How will the United States justify the sanctions that we have, the rhetoric that's coming out of the White House now, if the people in Crimea say they want the Russian troops there, that they want to be part of Russia?

Part of the problem here is that everything has happened so fast, in a crazy revolutionary fashion, that nobody is really following the law perfectly. So, an elected Ukrainian president was deposed, essentially by street gangs and protests. Very heroic, but this guy was elected.

Now, Crimea is claiming they can hold their own independent referendum, which technically is not allowed. The Ukrainian constitution requires that a referendum has to be held in all of Ukraine.

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When law gets murky, I always think you look at where the troops are, you look at where power is. And Russia has the power. And whatever the sanctions we put in place, they're not going to be enough to deter them, because this is vital to them. This is part of their vital national interest. And this is where the West made a mistake – we didn't recognize that Ukraine was a peripheral issue for us and even for the Europeans, but for Russia it's at the absolute heart of Russian power.

Are the new sanctions announced today by the U.S., including against people and entities that they say are behind this crisis, symbolic or does this hurt Putin?

They're symbolic. It's very tough to do sanctions when they're not comprehensive and when they are not complete, by which I mean, you need to have everybody participating. That's why the Iran sanctions worked because the Obama administration went to the U.N. They got the neighbors to agree. They got the Chinese and the Russians to agree.

In this case, Europeans are not buying into these sanctions because they need Russian natural gas. They need the electricity, the power, too much to agree. The Chinese haven’t come on board. So, these are unilateral American sanctions. They're also not complete, because they don't really involve the heart of Russia's power, which is its oil and natural gas.

So, when you have leaky sanctions like that, historically, they rarely work.

What can the U.S. do to influence European leaders to get into this sanction game?

I think what we have to recognize is we're not going to get a perfect solution in terms of trying to make Russia pay a price for what's happened. So what we're going to have to do is fire on multiple fronts and hope that in doing so collectively you force the Russians to pay a price and ask themselves, was this worth it? Is it worth some kind of a political settlement? Is there an off-ramp?

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But there is no silver bullet. The silver bullet would be a complete set of sanctions that involves oil and natural gas. And that isn’t going to happen. It would involve U.N.-oriented sanctions, because that's international. But the Russians have a veto in the Security Council. So, you're already in the realm not of second best, but of third, fourth, and fifth best options.

Moral condemnation, political condemnation, cancelling the G8, some sanctions – that's the best you can do.

But you have made a case that Russia is not necessarily in a better place than it was, in a geopolitical sense, two weeks ago.

Think about it. Putin will have Crimea. But as a result, many Ukrainians now hate him and hate Russia, and this prize of Ukraine has slipped out of Russia's control.

Poland, which had warming relations with Russia, is now calling emergency NATO meetings. So are the Hungarians, the Czechs. The chancellor of Germany says Putin is delusional, so trade is going to dry up or at least slow down between Russia and Europe. The United States has imposed sanctions. The Chinese are looking at him warily. The Turks, his other neighbors, are worried.

All this and what does he get? He gets Crimea, which, by the way, has a 15 percent Muslim population that is part of an insurgency that he's been battling in the Caucuses anyway. This is really a good example of what John Kerry calls "19th century thinking." You know, you got some piece of geography when what you really need is peace, stability, trade, commerce to build the wealth of your country.

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Topics: Russia • Ukraine • United States

soundoff (84 Responses)
  1. Brazilain guy

    In my humble opinion as Brazilian, US is loosing power, definetely. This crisis is proving that to the entire world. That being said, all NATO can do is to close Harrods to Russia shopping. hahahahahah

    March 7, 2014 at 6:29 am | Reply
    • tadpole

      The US certainly has lost credibility over the years, for a variety of reasons, but I think it still is powerful. Part of having real power is knowing when to use it, which was one of the problems as to the credibility issue.

      March 7, 2014 at 8:26 am | Reply
    • Opizze

      The U.S. still has greater military power then the following what? 9 or 10 nations combined? What power have we exactly lost? What's happened over the years is that the world is becoming more transparent and thus we've minded our P's and Q's better than we use to. Certain presidents haven't cared about international opinion, but most probably have and thus we're reluctant to engage in unnecessary conflicts or where we can't justify the cost for the gain. In this case is purely about our recent resolution of 2 major conflicts, a police action in Libya, Syria is still a completely failed state and we may have to deal with Iran in the near future. Yea we're not going to take on Russia over a small peninsula jutting out into the Black Sea with no apparent strategic value other than shutting Russia out of its' naval ports there. We're not at war with them and we're not going to war with them anytime soon so why bother? Further though, even if we were at war, we can strike them from so many different angles and simply mine the strait leading to the Black Sea or blockade it to shut off access to the ports there.

      Again why should we bother with us to gain access to a nation in economic peril with little strategic advantage against an enemy we're not even in a cold war with anymore? I actually quite enjoy the way we played this by giving Ukraine our crumbs ($1 billion dollar proposed economic package), which is to them very significant and hopefully we stem Russia's aggression as they now have what they wanted. As the article points out, if we're being technical, this was part of Russia to begin with and was only lost due to political blundering.

      March 7, 2014 at 12:53 pm | Reply
      • tuge

        Overall, Russia is increasingly proving to have more power than the US.Power is a capacity,and not the exercise of that capacity. The US has been involved with several wars that have not only been badly managed, but also have contributed in diminishing America's military capabilities. In contrast, Russia has managed to stifle certain conflicts from escalation without recourse to direct military involvement. Further, the classification of military might is mostly based on conventional capabilities, which is clearly not indicative of the totality of destructive power. Russia's nuclear capabilities far outclass those of the US. Besides, Russian military is not as heavily indebted like the US military. If you factor in conventional and nuclear capabilities as a function of destructive power, then Russia, with its unmatched multiplicity of megaton warheads, remains in a class of its own. In fact, Russia could easily be the most dangerous country on this planet in terms of overall military might.

        March 8, 2014 at 9:15 am |
    • banasy©

      You need to stop listening to FNCBrazil.

      March 7, 2014 at 7:45 pm | Reply
  2. Latvian

    Putin are the next in Europe, after Adolf, who is after geography. Like in the case of Alexander the great, it is not possible to stop, when somebody starts. Like narcotics. First was Georgia, now Crimea next in line Moldova and Baltic states, then looms Poland....... And why not? Nobody can do nothing.

    March 7, 2014 at 6:33 am | Reply
  3. Erik

    A heartfelt thank you to Fareed Zakaria for presenting this important perspective. Losing the Crimea to Russia is all but inevitable, and arguably the most democratic solution, but it will be a Pyrrhic victory for Russia, and one that strongly cements Ukraine's ties to Europe.

    While Putin's imperialistic bent may well marginally widen Russia's geographical borders, it's geopolitical sphere of influence will shrink substantially.

    March 7, 2014 at 7:03 am | Reply
  4. Alex

    Zakharia – wake up! Half of ukranian citizens are russian. They want to be russian and dream about Russia, because they haven't use their native language in evereday life.

    March 7, 2014 at 7:08 am | Reply
    • Heartslayer

      Who are you trying to fool? Have you ever visited Ukraine? In a significant part of Eastern Ukraine you can hardly hear Ukrainian. And no, few their dream of Russia, and thanks to Russia's latest moves now there will be even fewer.

      March 7, 2014 at 7:50 am | Reply
    • uncleric

      That's a pile of crap.
      My wife is Ukrainian; she has friends that are Russian Ukrainian.
      They all can speak fluent Ukrainian.
      But they HATE imperialistic Russia.
      Why? Because the typical arrogant Russian looks down at their 'little Russian' (Ukrainian) peers.

      The so-call Russian Ukrainian agitators are bussed in Russian goons.
      Nothing more.

      Your statement is like saying all Hispanic Americans in the USA prefer to assimilate into their respective Hispanic origins.

      March 7, 2014 at 12:46 pm | Reply
  5. sand

    russia needs to nuke usa and britain and also nuke dublin ireland and norway and israel death to the western european race and there f i l t h y jews let them boil away in a sea of nuclear electro magnetic enegry.

    March 7, 2014 at 7:19 am | Reply
    • teodors

      Looks like someone did not took their medication lately.

      March 7, 2014 at 7:35 am | Reply
      • tadpole

        Comments like those simply make me laugh, cause you never know if it is just a crazy person, or someone trying to make someone else's arguments seem crazy by association.

        March 7, 2014 at 8:27 am |
    • Ted

      It's Friday – must be Khameni's sermon's time.

      March 7, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Reply
    • marine8151

      Like that's really going to happen. Do you really believe the nukes wouldn't be flying right back at them?

      March 7, 2014 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  6. Saluti da ITALIA

    Why do people think that USA is losing power? Because, in Italia, people don't want 'J a p a n e s e States of Korea' over there in America.

    March 7, 2014 at 8:04 am | Reply
  7. milenkovic milan

    During Pr. Putin, Russia became more AGGRESSIVE : from Middle East to Ukraine occupation (if USA &EU do NOT show their teeth now, Russia will continue with aggressions, in the future) ?! Also, to me, USA & EU Intelligence FAILED in Ukraine...History will show who was wise and who NAÏVE in this case…

    March 7, 2014 at 10:08 am | Reply
  8. jack

    ok for us to invade to serve our interest then we have the balls to call others thugs when they do the dame.

    March 7, 2014 at 10:31 am | Reply
  9. GatorDude

    "You know, you got some piece of geography when what you really need is peace, stability, trade, commerce to build the wealth of your country." – Putin is a better strategic thinker than any U.S. leaders. He knows that military power is the foundation of the state. He also knows that Russia is economically strong and holds more vital natural resources than Europe. As a consequence of his aggression, I'm pretty sure that Putin is getting Russia a very nice and permanent warm water port. This will allow Russia to project power year round, export arms, and move other products to client states. We would do well to remember that"peace, stability, trade, commerce" and snarky comments by our Secretary of State aren't really effective anti-tank weapons. The M1 Abrams and A-10 Warthog are excellent in those areas. However, our government has already wisely announced that there is no way such things will be useful in any future war.

    March 7, 2014 at 10:54 am | Reply
  10. Syd Chaden

    When the Soviet Union sent ships carrying nuclear weapons to Cuba, President Kennedy told the Soviets to turn the ships around, or they would be destroyed. The ships turned around. Kennedy won a battle without having had to fight it.
    When the Soviet Union dominated Eastern Europe though its military power, President Reagan strengthened the US military, and told the Soviets to take down the Berlin Wall. The Soviets couldn’t match the strength of the US military, and the USSR collapsed, freeing Eastern Europe and eliminating the threat to the West. Reagan won a war without having had to fight it.
    In contrast, as Russia strengthens its military and extends its control into Georgia and Ukraine, Obama is shrinking the US military. Putin laughs at Obama’s speeches, threatening sanctions, and Western Europe cowers in fear. Obama is showing how to lose a war without having had to fight it.

    March 7, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Reply
    • Joe Balderrama

      Good grief, what an ignorant comment this is! We have absolutely no right at all butting into this affair. Besides, Obama isn't shrinking the military as he should. We have a vastly over sized military as it is! We need to but out and let the Russians and the Ukrainians settle it between themselves.

      March 8, 2014 at 2:06 pm | Reply
  11. meh

    "All this and what does he get?"

    Why does everyone assume that Putin has to be getting something? Can't Putin be acting just to protect the people of Crimea? Is the majority so cynical that everything has to be about geopolitical power and nothing can be done because (Putin thinks, in this case) it is the right thing to do?

    March 9, 2014 at 9:41 am | Reply
  12. barry

    at least Russia have bored with Ukraine .where were dose hungry and hypocrite Muslims who immigrate to america just to go to hell.like Fareed .where were they when america went Iraq and afghanistan ?

    March 16, 2014 at 10:49 am | Reply
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