So, Europe and the US have sent a message to Russian President Putin after the downing of the Malaysian airliner and ongoing military interference in eastern Ukrain. Heightened sanctions. What will Putin do?
There is quite a bit of media speculation, and some of it is a bit silly. That discussion is about whether heightened sanctions will work at all. Why is this silly? Think about it. The west could have done nothing, and left open the possibility that Putin will see this as capitulation. Sounds like a bad option. Or the west could militarily intervene. That could escalate out of control if neither side backed off. Also sounds like a bad idea. Sanctions are the only other serious option. And we cannot know what effect they will have. So we need to wait and see.
But what would you do if you were Putin? One option might be to cut off gas supplies to Europe as a “tit for tat” move. Would it help Russia? Well, it would hurt financially and politically. Would it be worth it? It might if it could end western interference with what Russia wants to do in Ukraine. But that is not likely. The other benefit would be to placate the hardliners in the Kremlin. But it would also cause more concerns among the more moderate factions who are doing their cost/benefit calculations to decide how far Russia should go to get what it wants in Ukraine.Thinking rationally, this option has drawbacks.
But here is the key strategic point. If you are a European or American policy maker, you have to prepare for the worst case – that Putin may just do this anyway. Why? So you are prepared with your counter-move.