With Russian troops amassed along its border and Kremlin-backed separatists in control of major cities in eastern Ukraine, the government in Kiev is facing the gravest threat to its survival since the breakup of the former Soviet Union a generation ago. Unless the United States and its allies can persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to step back from using the unrest there as a pretext for military intervention, it looks more likely than ever that eastern Ukraine could suffer the same fate as Crimea, which Russia annexed last month in a blatant violation of international law.

A week ago, Ukrainian authorities announced they were sending army units to drive Russia's proxies from the government buildings and facilities they occupy in the country's eastern region. It was the first offensive operation the government has undertaken to block a reprise of Moscow's takeover of Crimea, which it accomplished virtually without firing a shot.

Putin obviously feels he has the upper hand in the situation despite the imposition of sanctions by the United States and the European Union on assets held abroad by a handful of his close advisers and sycophants. But Putin might feel differently if Western governments went after Russia's real oligarchs, the billionaires who buy assets in the West like expensive real estate in London, New York and Miami for the sole purpose of having a place to stash their ill-gotten gains — and who could care less about Ukraine. It's those people who Putin needs to keep happy, and they won't be if Western governments start freezing their bank accounts and seizing their condos and cars.

President Obama has been criticized by conservatives for not waving the bloody shirt and rattling sabers to make a show of his resolve. But blundering into a military confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia would be a losing hand for the U.S. and NATO; eventually the West would have to back down, leaving Putin in a stronger position than he was before. Instead, Obama's strategy should be to make Putin the one who has to back down by using the crisis to demonstrate the Russian president's failures as a leader and political weakness at home. Even more than stripping Russia's oligarchs of their wealth, tough Western sanctions against the country's energy sector and arms manufacturers would have a devastating effect on an economy based on extractive industries.

The West needs to make clear to Putin that it not only has the capacity to bring Russia's primary economic engine to a grinding halt but that if it does, the repercussions will be severe enough to threaten even his own hold on power. That ultimately may be the only thing Putin really cares about, which is why U.S. and European leaders need to speak with one voice to convince him the West absolutely is not bluffing about what will happen if he continues his reckless military adventure in Ukraine. That's a far more serious challenge to his position than any Western military move could pose, and over the long run it's also a gambit the West is certain to win.

President Obama has given Putin an "off ramp" from the disaster he's courting, and if he chooses to take it the West should be gracious in allowing him to save face. But if not, the United States and the European Union need to be ready to pound the stuffing out of the Russian economy and isolate Putin politically at home and abroad so that even his control of state media won't be able to undo the damage to his power and prestige.


—The Baltimore Sun, April 17