WASHINGTON — For all his bluster and bravado, President Vladimir Putin’s assurance Tuesday that Russia does not plan, at least for now, to seize eastern Ukraine suggested a possible path forward in the geopolitical crisis that has captivated the world. Global markets reacted with relief, and the White House with cautious optimism.
But the development presented a tricky conundrum for President Obama and his European allies. Even if Russia does leave eastern Ukraine alone and avoids escalating its military intervention, can it effectively freeze in place its occupation of the Crimean Peninsula? Would the United States and Europe be forced to tacitly accept that, or could they find a way to roll it back — and, if so, at what price?
Putin broke his studied silence on the political upheaval in Ukraine on Tuesday during a 66-minute news conference that sought to justify Russia’s actions and policies. He delivered a version of the crisis that was fundamentally at odds with the view held by most officials in the United States, Europe and Ukraine.
“The only thing we had to do, and we did it, was to enhance the defense of our military facilities because they were constantly receiving threats and we were aware of the armed nationalists moving in,” Putin said, referring to Russia’s longstanding bases affiliated with the Black Sea Fleet, which has its headquarters in the port of Sevastopol in Ukraine’s Crimea region.
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Ever since Russian forces took control of Crimea, Obama’s aides have privately conceded that reversing the occupation would be difficult, if not impossible, in the short run and focused their energy on drawing a line to prevent Putin from going further. If Crimea, in coming weeks, remains cordoned off, it then will require a concerted effort to force Russia to pull back troops, an effort that could divide the United States from European allies who may be more willing to live with the new status quo.
For the moment, the White House was focused on preventing the confrontation from escalating and, while discouraged by Putin’s bellicosity and justification of his actions, U.S. officials took some solace that he said he saw no need, at this point, for intervention in Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine. They also were encouraged by Putin’s seeming acceptance of new elections in May as a way to legitimize a new Ukrainian government.
While Secretary of State John Kerry visited Kiev on Tuesday to show support for its beleaguered pro-Western government, Obama consulted with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany by telephone about finding a face-saving way for Putin to withdraw in favor of international monitors.
Speaking with reporters, Obama said some had interpreted Putin’s remarks earlier in the day to mean he “is pausing for a moment and reflecting on what’s happened.”
Others cautioned against reading too much into Putin’s statements. Ivo Daalder, Obama’s first ambassador to NATO, said, “It would be a mistake on our part to look at what he’s saying and think this crisis is almost over: ‘OK, we’ve lost Crimea, but the rest of the country is with us.’ ”
He continued: “Crimea is a big deal. It means a country can be invaded, and a big piece of it can be taken away with no price. But two, this isn’t just about Crimea. This is about who is ultimately in control of Ukraine.”
The situation remained tense as Obama administration officials moved forward with plans for sanctions that could be imposed by the United States and, they hoped, in conjunction with European allies. The administration is developing plans for actions that would escalate over time if Russia continued to leave forces in place in Crimea, an autonomous region of Ukraine.
Obama has authority to take several steps without new legislation from Congress.
For starters, under a law called the Magnitsky Act, the State Department has already drafted a list of Russians tied to human-rights abuses whom it refrained from imposing sanctions on recently. The administration could promptly ban those Russians from traveling to the United States and freeze any assets here.
The president also has the power under existing Syria sanctions to go after Russian individuals and institutions that have been involved in sending arms to help President Bashar Assad crush the rebellion there. The administration had previously held back on such actions while trying to work with Russia to resolve the Syrian civil war, but if applied they could cut off Russian banks from financial institutions in Europe.
Obama also could sign an executive order creating another set of sanctions specifically against Russian officials and organizations blamed for creating instability in Ukraine and violating its sovereignty. In theory, that could include everyone up to Putin himself, but officials indicated that they would not target him, at least initially, and, instead, would work their way up the chain of command.
Leaders in Europe, dependent on Russian natural gas and with far deeper economic ties to Russia, have expressed reluctance to go along with the toughest sanctions at this point. Russian investors hold assets worth billions in European banks, not least in Britain and Cyprus — two financial hubs popular with Russians.
Britain is especially protective of London’s huge financial industry and would be reluctant to take actions that undermine the sector just as the country is crawling out of recession.
An American order declaring a Russian bank in violation would be sent to banks around the world, forcing them to cut off ties with that Russian institution or risk being barred from doing business with the U.S. financial sector.
“My view is that Russia can be forced out of Crimea with the combination of financial sanctions plus straightforward hard diplomacy,” said Anders Aslund, a longtime specialist on Russia and Ukraine at the Peterson Institute of International Economics in Washington.
Still, others are dubious, noting that Obama may not be willing to go as far as necessary without the support of allies, particularly given that it would presumably jeopardize Russian cooperation on a range of issues, including Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Middle East peace.
The precedent may be Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two pro-Moscow regions that broke away from the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
After Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008, the Kremlin defied the United States and the rest of the world by recognizing their independence and left troops in place to guarantee it. For all their protests, the United States and Europe ultimately began doing business as usual with Russia again.
Obama’s aides said that Ukraine was different and that they had a hard time imagining going back to a normal relationship as long as Russian troops occupied Crimea.
Their first priority is preventing Russia from annexing the peninsula outright, but even leaving it as an enclave under Moscow’s control would not be acceptable, they said.
After listening to Putin on Tuesday, White House officials said they saw three possibilities going forward:
• The first would be a Russian escalation into eastern Ukraine, one they hope Putin was signaling he would not pursue.
• The second would be Russia deciding to stay put in Crimea, either through annexation or through de facto rule.
• The third would be Russia taking what U.S. officials call an “offramp,” agreeing to let international monitors replace Russian troops in the streets to guard against any attacks on Russian speakers and accepting the Ukrainian government that emerges from the May elections.
Obama, who spoke for 90 minutes with Putin last weekend and plans to talk with him again, according to aides, said Tuesday that he recognized that Russia has natural interests in its neighbor.
But he said he would not accept what he called a continuing violation of international law. “I know President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations,” he said, “but I don’t think that’s fooling anybody.”
The president added that Ukrainians should have the right to determine their own fate.
“Mr. Putin can throw a lot of words out there, but the facts on the ground indicate that right now he’s not abiding by that principle,” Obama said. “There is still the opportunity for Russia to do so, working with the international community to help stabilize the situation.”
Includes material from The Associated Press