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The MENA Kaleidoscope Hurtles Toward Ukraine

18/03/2014 14:29 GMT | Updated 18/05/2014 10:59 BST

Those who have become used to my written reflections over the past few years may well have wondered if I were going through an extended dry period. After all, my own epektasis web-site has been eerily quiet for the past ten weeks!

One main reason - amongst others - has been the fact that there is only so much one can write about the ebullitions of a region before turning redundantly tautological or else analytically sterile. We either do not know what will occur in the region next week, or else we can predict it far too well, and both options assume an element of intellectual tedium. I can see it when I read the plethora of pieces coming out from every nook and cranny - many of them are recycled or rehashed arguments that resemble tweets rather than proper forward-looking analyses striving to push the envelope.

But the oh-so-sudden crisis in the Ukraine is different. It is different because it altered the global security environment and could also suddenly turn very serious because it is closer to our European doors - and by definition to our interests.

Ever since 27 February 2014, we have wryly been witnessing a gradual Russian takeover of the Crimean peninsula that followed the uprising in Kiev against the former President Viktor Yanukovych. This gave President Putin the necessary political fig-leaf to lay a heavy hand on this small piece of land that was Russian before 1954 and that provides Russia with an egress to the Mediterranean Sea. Consequently, we had a sham referendum that provided illegitimate results.

Mind you, President Putin cited the 1999 NATO air war in Kosovo to justify his reaction and provide legitimacy for it, if not strict legal justification, by intervening in order to protect Russian-speaking citizens. Moreover, he seems to have ignored his violation of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 whereby the USA, Great Britain and the Russian Federation guaranteed the territorial integrity and security of Ukraine in exchange for an abolition of its nuclear weapons.

We in the West have once more been impotent in our response. Granted, Ukraine is close to our borders than it is to the USA, and we have trade relations with Russia that are quite substantial in some cases. Our constant emphasis on ill-defined but 'serious consequences' if Russia were to proceed with its designs in Crimea is not much more than crying wolf - and Putin knows it. A man who prides himself in his macho behaviour, riding horses bare-chested and practising judo, will not cower if we threaten to boycott our forthcoming meetings with him. Rather, he relishes such tussles.

So what should we in the West do - or to put it slightly differently, what can we do today when we in the past have also set dubious precedents with Cuba let alone with Vietnam, Iraq and even Libya?

• As Garry Kasparov, chairman of the NY-based Human Rights Foundation, said in one of his interviews, we are all aware that we cannot resort to military warfare without manufacturing another doomsday scenario. However, we must understand that Russia is drawing war stratagems with a mindset that is situated in the 19th and 20th centuries where Bismarck's principle of 'might is right' sill holds sway. However, we are now in the 21st century and we should therefore - absent going to war - use our banks rather than our tanks in order to apply swingeing measures that hurt the oligarchs in Russia who are in their majority a bedrock of Putin's support and in so doing coerce them to pressure Putin into a moratorium. As Kasparov put it, "Cut off the Russian oligarchs and they'll dump Putin, target their assets abroad, their mansions and IPO's in London, their yachts."

• However, unlike the USA, we do not have a Magnitsky Act or other relevant legal authorities to impose financial sanctions that target the ill-gotten wealth of senior Russia officials involved in this military adventure. However, we have many Russian rubles sloshing away in our economies and feeding our black markets. So any sustained action would pinch the economy of Russia and make its Politburo sit up and take notice.

To date, several of the opposition sites have already been blocked by the Russian authorities. There is also loose talk that Crimea is only another appetizer in the Russian hunger for a re-constitution of its real or imagined past glories. Will the next stop be East Ukraine, or else Moldova, or even Kazakhstan and any of the Stan republics let alone the Baltic States? Will we simply roll over time and again until there is no more geography let alone demography to fight over?

I suspect that President Putin took note of our bluster over the recent pogroms in Syria and decided that the West has lost all appetite for a fight - even if the fight is for all those basic principles that we seemingly hold dear. After all, did the US Administration not show a bewildering lack of gumption in Syria by ignoring every real and virtual red line and in so doing aided and abetted Russian - and incidentally other - bellicose designs?

We still can take a credible stand, make Russia wince and retrieve our mauled morality in the process. But we should accept that any bold action will hurt us at least as much as it will hurt Russia. Do we truly have the stomach anymore for a long standoff, or will we think of all those bitcoins feeding our economies and blink first?

No pain, no gain: what will we choose when it comes to a stark choice between lovely toys and lofty principles?