A month ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to be successfully executing his campaign to destabilize Ukraine. While Russian-backed insurgents consolidated a breakaway republic, weak and divided Western governments ignored their own deadlines for imposing sanctions. Now, suddenly, Mr. Putin faces twin reversals: relatively tough sanctions from the United States and European Union on Russian banks and oil companies, and a string of military defeats that have pushed back his proxy forces. It's a dangerous moment for Mr. Putin.
President Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders have bent over backwards to avoid a full rupture with Mr. Putin over Ukraine. Mr. Obama said Tuesday that the sanctions did not represent "a new cold war" but rather "a very specific issue" related to Ukraine. Yet the combination of economic losses from the sanctions and Ukraine's potential defeat of the rebels could pose a threat to Mr. Putin's hold on the Kremlin. Having whipped up nationalist passions over Ukraine with his state-directed propaganda apparatus, the Russian ruler might have trouble explaining the rebels' eclipse. While the effect of sanctions will take time to sink into the economy, Mr. Putin had already been on thin ice with Russia's middle class and its private-sector businessmen.
It's not yet clear how Mr. Putin will react to these reversals. He is capable of surprising shifts of direction--such as his sudden offer last summer to help strip his ally Syria of chemical weapons. Ukrainian officials, like some of their counterparts in the West, worry about a reckless lashing out by a ruler who feels cornered. Mr. Putin, they counsel, still should be offered a face-saving way of retreating from Ukraine.
Editorial on 08/01/2014
Print Headline: A wounded bear