Obama’s Menu of Small Options For Big Russian Problem In Ukraine

Playing Russian roulette with Russia without guns

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AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

President Barack Obama pauses as he answers a question regarding the ongoing situation in the Ukraine, during his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Monday, March 3, 2014, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.

As President Obama struggles to address the Russian military incursion in Crimea, he faces something of an international relations puzzle: How can he stop hostilities without the threat of hostilities?

“The only way to undo Russian control of Crimea is to use military force,” says Charles Kupchan, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University, about the Russian occupation, “and that is out of the question because I don’t think anyone believes it’s significant enough to try and deploy NATO troops for the Crimea.”

So the U.S. faces instead a menu of options that together form a sort of death-by-paper-cuts approach: hoping to weaken Putin, the Russian economy and its international standing in a way that forces Putin to back down. “Each of these things are on the small side but if you tie then together it could amount to something that could dissuade them,” says Steve Pifer, director of the Brookings Institution’s Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative.

Here’s a look at potential moves the U.S. could take:


No serious observer is now predicting a scenario where U.S. troops are on the ground in the Ukraine. That said, an array of military responses could be taken by the White House to increase pressure on Russia to withdraw. In 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia, President George W. Bush moved U.S. warships into the region and used them to supply humanitarian aid. Thus far the Pentagon has “put n hold all military-to-military engagements between the United States and Russia,” though it has yet to redeploy any U.S. military assets in response to Russia’s invasion of the Crimea. That might change if Russia moves beyond the Crimea into eastern Ukraine. “It’s one thing to hold your military base in the Crimea; it’s another thing to start moving into eastern Ukraine,” says Robert Kahn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The Ukrainians would almost certainly resist, and then you have the option of a civil war.”

So far, the Obama Administration has not drawn any clear red lines about the American response if Putin does move into eastern Ukraine. “We need to organize a rapid resolute response that does include in some way shape or form a military option still on the table if the Russian moves beyond Crimea,” says Andrew Kuchins, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Russia and Eurasia program. “If we don’t think it is a red line—personally I think it is—then we need to be clear about that.”

If the Putin does move into eastern Ukraine, NATO could move to arm the Ukrainian military. “Only if you saw the Russians go into eastern Ukraine, which I don’t think Russians will do, but if you had that kind of conflict going on, at least some NATO members would say we don’t want to send NATO troops but let’s start sending them equipment that could be of use, ground to air missiles, that sort of thing,” Pifer says.

But such moves could escalate conflicts in other parts of the world. In addition to the second largest nuclear arsenal and the largest fleet of tanks on the plant, Russia proved in 2008 when the U.S. objected to its invasion of Georgia that it has other deterrents. “Russia has its own leverage in dealing with the U.S., ranging from the U.S. military’s continued access to Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network to Moscow’s restraint in sending S-300 missiles or even more advanced systems to Iran,” says Paul Saunders, head of the Center for the National Interest. “So the challenge is to apply pressure on Moscow in a way that does not lead to escalation and leaves Russia an acceptable way out.”


Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland is in Vienna at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe working to get international observers on the ground in east Ukraine as soon as possible. The United Nations is also working to send observers at the request of the Ukrainian government. There are two reasons for this. One, Russia claims that it invaded the Crimea to protect ethnic Russians against retaliatory anti-Russian attacks. Crimea and much of eastern Ukraine are mostly ethnic Russian. So, having observers on the ground validates or negates these claims by an impartial third party. And, secondly, killing third party observers could have severe international consequences, so their presence in eastern Ukraine makes it slightly more complicated for Putin to invade, should he so wish.

Putin can also be threatened with the prospect of international isolation. As Russia’s economy has grown, it has sought accession to most of the world’s large international bodies such as the World Trade Organization, which it joined in 2012 after 18 years of negotiations, and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, to which its been waiting 16 years to join. “The U.S. can block that and will block that now,” Pifer says.

Russia joined the Groups of Seven, a forum for the world’s largest industrial democracies, in 1998, creating the Group of Eight. Even though it was not the eight largest industrial economy in the world, it’s regional influence earned it access to the rarified club. Putin was due to hold the annual G8 summit in Sochi, the site of the Winter Olympics, in June. All seven other countries suspended pre-negotiations for the summit and condemned “the Russian Federation’s clear violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, in contravention of Russia’s obligations under the UN Charter and its 1997 basing agreement with Ukraine.” But how much difference does one summit make? “The administration cannot eject Russia from the G8 or the G20 without the support of other members,” Saunders says. “Germany does not appear to support ejecting Russia from the G8 at this point.  So they have suspended preparatory talks.  They could go farther and announce that the U.S. will not attend the meeting, but this would likely not bother Putin too much.  He did not come to the G8 himself when it was in the US in 2012.” Western nations could also threaten to cancel or suspend the EU-Russia partnership, with its biannual summits, and the Nato-Russia Council.

Another path would be to threaten the international prestige of the Russian oligarchs. As the U.S. has done before with a law that targeted those responsible for the death in prison of anti-corruption activist Sergei Magnitsky, banning some officials and powerful Russians from obtaining visas and freezing their funds abroad could cause internal pressure for Putin. Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Republican, has suggested expanding this act to include friends of Putin, especially those who love to travel to New York, London and Paris with significant personal funds in foreign bank accounts.

One place where Russia has membership, and has had it from the beginning, is the United Nations Security Council. The U.S. and Europe are moving to introduce resolutions there condemning Russia’s actions in the Crimea and supporting the territorial integrity of the Ukraine. While Russia will surely veto whatever comes up, the votes put Russian ally China, a long outspoken protector of territorial integrity of nations, in an awkward position. “China is in very hard position,” Pifer says, “they’ve worried about territorial integrity because of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, Uighur.” In other words, if they join in the international condemnation of Putin in Crimea, they increase the chance they would be condemned in the case of a domestic regional splintering.


There’s an economic reason why Germany protects Russia’s membership to the G8: as Germany moves away from nuclear energy, it is increasingly reliant on natural gas and oil. In fact, 25% of Europe’s gas comes from Russia—about $100 million worth a day. That makes imposing economic sanctions on Putin tricky for Europe. It is also a concern for Asia, where several large economies depend on Russian gas. “China is not likely to curtail its purchases and has been supportive of Moscow,” Saunders says. “Japan is in the middle of a major energy crisis after the Fukushima accident and would not likely welcome this approach, especially as they are already doing something similar vis-à-vis Iran.”

U.S. sanctions would mean little to Moscow as U.S. trade accounts for less than 2% of the Russian economy. “Our levers of influence here are particularly limited here,” says a House Democratic aide. “The administration is working on lining up support in Europe. But that’s the big question: how proactive, how robust are they willing to be.”

Both chambers of Congress are moving ahead with legislation on Ukraine. The first bill would provide short-term economic relief ahead of an International Monetary Fund package that is in the works. That would include upwards of $1 billion in loan guarantees for the Ukraine and other economic aid. The second bill, which could be marked up in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as early as March 11, would include sanctions against Russia. “The U.S. should make use of the tools at its disposal, including targeted sanctions; and asset recovery targeting corruption, to dissuade individuals who would foment unrest to undermine Ukraine’s territorial integrity or employ coercive economic measures against the Ukrainian people and the new Ukrainian government,” wrote a dozen senators on the Foreign Relations committee in a letter to Obama on Friday previewing their intended legislation.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has already suspended talks on the bilateral investment treaty and canceled a Russian visit to the United States to talk about cooperation in international energy markets. “You’ll start to see in mil-mil channels, in economic channels, and these other cooperation channels meetings be canceled until they make the right decision,” says a senior Administration official. “It is Russia’s choice whether it wants to behave in this manner or whether it wants to come back into the community of civilized nations.”

Already, the economic moves are taking their toll. Moscow’s exchange, while small, fell by nearly 12% on Tuesday and the ruble hit an all time low against the dollar. “None of those are significantly potent to get Putin out of the Crimea,” says Kupchan. “It’s now up to Obama to figure out how to respond and there are not a lot of good options. However, Putin has clearly crossed a very important line and it cannot go without some serious response from Obama Administration and its allies.”