Not a day goes by without hearing a story about some Russian military craft getting closer to a NATO country. Many in the West wonder why. Could it be that Vladimir Putin intends to swallow up Europe? Is he flexing his muscles once again? Is it a test of President Barack Obama's leadership? Is it about creating dissension in the ranks?
Actually, none of these are likely to be the reason. Putin is likely directing his military to challenge countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a way of pressuring these countries to end sanctions on Russia.
One has to wonder why a country would zoom bombers into another's airspace, or even another's country. Are they at war? Is there even a reason to fight? If there's an issue to fight about, it's Ukraine, as well as Crimea and Georgia.
When Ukraine's crisis prompted Russia to take the Crimea, Western countries slapped Russia with a series of economic sanctions. Even though the Russian stock market plunged, Putin kept doing his best to rattle the saber against the West, even sending his forces to assist beleaguered pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine.
Over and over, Western critics have portrayed Putin as the big winner in any dispute, flaunting his machismo in his foreign policy. Republicans like Mitt Romney have even taken pains to point out that their response would be more effective. House Speaker John Boehner even said that if George W. Bush was president, he would have stopped Putin, conveniently forgetting how little Bush did when Putin militarily seized a part of Georgia in 2008.
But while we're wringing our hands about our "ineffective" policy and Putin publicly laughs off those sanctions, they are having a harsh bite, and Putin knows it. The Russian Ruble is in freefall, wiping out any gains made during his regime.
If Putin were "winning," would he continue to send his forces to try and scare Western countries? Or are these actions showing some degree of desperation as his country's economy teeters on the brink?
Sanctions have long been derided as ineffective ever since the League of Nations bungled it's attempt to force Italy to stop attacking Ethiopia in the 1930s, signaling the demise of that international organization.
But as we've seen with South Africa, Myanmar, and even the former Yugoslavia's Serb Republic, sanctions can force a regime to change policy, or even bring about the end of that government.
It's unrealistic to expect Putin to be overthrown by sanctions. But if he didn't care so much about them, why would he try to rattle the West's nerves. Sticking to their guns on sanctions could help the West lead Putin to back off on his attempts to take over all of Ukraine, and even cede control of East Ukraine and recognition of the pro-Russian rebels. Because Putin has to decide whether controlling these small bits of territory are worth sacrificing the economy that supports his military, and his legitimacy.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.