Mark Nuckols

But Obama has potentially powerful weapons in his sanctions arsenal. Iran is a case in point. Cutting off access to the world financial system has brought even the toughest mullahs to the negotiating table. And sanctions on Russia’s energy exports could literally “make the economy scream.”

The ruble is already down almost 20% since last fall, and Russia’s equity markets are in a freefall, even as global indices are reaching record highs.

Putin’s social compact has always been this – a plentiful trough for the bureaucrats to feed from, and rising incomes for the general population. This economic machine is already stalling, and well placed sanctions could deliver it a fatal blow. Russia’s middle class may love Putin’s apparent projection of strength, but his weakness is that they are not ready to endure economic hardship for his foreign adventures.

Putin may have expected his “conquest” of Crimea to permanently cement his power, but his miscalculation may in fact lead to “Maidan” in Moscow if either the oligarchs or the populace turn on his system. The open question right now is whether President Obama will use sanctions with real bite merely to deter Putin from further intrusions on Ukrainian soil, or as a means to pry Crimea back out of Putin's paws.

Mark Nuckols

Mark Nuckols teaches law and business in Moscow. He has a JD from Georgetown and an MBA from Dartmouth. He has lived in Eastern Europe for most of the last 20 years, including Russia, Ukraine, Slovenia, and Georgia.