WASHINGTON — President Obama has warned Russia “there will be costs” for military intervention in Ukraine. But the United States has few palatable options for imposing such costs, and recent history has shown that when it considers its interests at stake, Russia has been willing to absorb any such fallout.
Even before President Vladimir Putin on Saturday publicly declared his intent to send Russian troops into the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, Obama and his team were discussing how to respond. They talked about canceling the president’s trip to a summit meeting in Russia, shelving a possible trade agreement, kicking Moscow out of the Group of Eight or moving U.S. warships to the region.
That is the same menu of actions that was offered to President George W. Bush in 2008, when Russia went to war with Georgia, another balky former Soviet republic. Yet the “costs” imposed at that time proved marginally effective and short-lived. Russia stopped its advance, but nearly six years later has never fully lived up to the terms of the cease-fire it signed.
“The question is: Are those costs big enough to cause Russia not to take advantage of the situation in the Crimea? That’s the $64,000 question,” said Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan, a retired Army officer who served as defense attaché in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and now, as a Harvard scholar, leads a group of former Russian and U.S. officials in back-channel talks.
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Obama announced the first direct response after a 90-minute telephone call with Putin on Saturday as he suspended preparations for the G-8 Summit meeting in Russia in June. The administration said: “Russia’s continued violation of international law will lead to greater political and economic isolation.”
Michael McFaul, who just stepped down as Obama’s ambassador to Moscow, said the president should go further to ensure that Russia’s business-minded establishment understands that it would find itself cut off. “There needs to be a serious discussion as soon as possible about economic sanctions so they realize there will be costs,” he said.
Putin has demonstrated that the cost to Moscow’s international reputation would not stop him. Having just hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi, he must have realized he was all but throwing away seven years and $50 billion of effort to polish Russia’s image. He evidently calculated any diplomatic damage did not outweigh what he sees as a threat to Russia’s historic interest in Ukraine, which was ruled by Russia until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Putin may stop short of outright annexation of Crimea, the largely Russian-speaking peninsula where Russia has a major military base, but instead justify a long-term troop presence by saying the troops are there to defend the local population from the new pro-Western government in Kiev. Following a tested Russian playbook, he could create a de facto enclave loyal to Moscow, much like the republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that broke away from Georgia. Obama administration officials worry that the crisis could escalate and that all of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine may try to split off.
Finding more compelling levers of influence will be a challenge for Obama and European allies. Obama has seen repeatedly that warnings often do not discourage autocratic rulers from taking violent action, as when Syria crossed the president’s “red line” by using chemical weapons in its civil war.
Russia is even tougher to pressure, too powerful to rattle with lectures or shows of military force, and too rich in resources to squeeze economically in the short term. With a veto on the U.N. Security Council, it need not worry about the world body. As the primary source of natural gas to much of Europe, it holds a trump card over many U.S. allies.
The longer-term options might be more painful, but they also require trade-offs. The administration could impose the same sort of banking sanctions that have choked Iran’s economy, aimed at Russia’s large state-controlled financial institutions. And yet Europe could be reluctant to go along, and Obama may be leery of pulling the trigger on such a potent weapon, especially when he needs Russian cooperation on Syria and Iran.
“What can we do?” asked Fiona Hill, a Brookings Institution scholar who was the government’s top intelligence officer on Russia during the Georgia war when Putin deflected Western agitation. “We’ll talk about sanctions. We’ll talk about red lines. … And he’ll stand back and just watch it. He just knows that none of the rest of us want a war.”
Ryan warned that any military movements could backfire by misleading Ukrainians into thinking the West might come to their rescue and so inadvertently encourage them to be more provocative with Russia.
Hill said Putin may simply wait. “Time,” she said, “is on his side.”