WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has warned Russia that “there will be costs” for a 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 in June, 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 only 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. And whatever penalty it paid at the time evidently has not deterred it from again muscling a neighbor.
“The question is: Are those costs big enough to cause Russia not to take advantage of the situation in the Crimea?” said Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan, a retired Army officer who served as defense attache in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and now, as a Harvard scholar, is involved leads a group of former Russian and U.S. officials in back-channel talks.
Michael McFaul, who just stepped down as Obama’s ambassador to Moscow, said the president should still try in hopes 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. “They should know there will be consequences and those should be spelled out before they take further actions.”
Putin has already 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 that any diplomatic damage did not outweigh what he sees as a threat to Russia’s historic interest in Ukraine, which was ruled by Moscow until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Putin may stop short of outright annexation of Crimea, the largely Russian-speaking peninsula where Moscow still 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. On the other hand, the White House worries that the crisis could escalate and that all of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine may try to split off.
Finding more compelling levers to influence his decision-making will be a challenge for Obama and the 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 an even tougher country to pressure, too powerful even in the post-Soviet age to rattle with stern 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. And 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 require trade-offs as well. 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, with its more substantial economic ties, could be reluctant to go along, and Obama may be leery of pulling the trigger on such a potent financial 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. We’ll basically drive ourselves into a frenzy. And he’ll stand back and just watch it. He just knows that none of the rest of us want a war.”
James F. Jeffrey was Bush’s deputy national security adviser in August 2008 and the first to inform him that Russian troops were moving into Georgia in response to what the Kremlin called Georgian aggression against South Ossetia. As it happened, the clash also took place at Olympic time; Bush and Putin were both in Beijing for the Summer Games.
Bush confronted Putin to no avail and then ordered U.S. ships to the region and provided a military transport to return home Georgian troops on duty in Iraq. He sent humanitarian aid on a military aircraft, assuming that Russia would be loath to attack the capital of Tbilisi with U.S. military personnel present. Bush also suspended a pending civilian nuclear agreement, and NATO suspended military contacts.
“We did a lot but in the end there was not that much that you could do,” Jeffrey recalled.
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Inside the Bush administration, there was discussion of more robust action, like bombing the Roki Tunnel to block Russian troops or providing Georgia with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bristled at what she called the “chest beating” and the national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, urged the president to poll his team to see if anyone actually recommended putting U.S. troops on the ground.
None did, and Bush was not willing to risk further escalation. While Russia stopped short of moving into Tbilisi, it achieved its goal by securing the effective independence of South Ossetia and another pro-Russian republic, Abkhazia, while leaving troops in areas it was supposed to evacuate under a cease-fire. Within a year or so, Russia’s diplomatic isolation was over. Obama took office and tried to improve relations. NATO resumed military contacts in 2009 and the United States revived the civilian nuclear agreement in 2010.
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Jeffrey, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Obama should now respond assertively by suggesting that NATO deploy forces to the Polish-Ukrainian border not to intervene in Crimea but to draw a line.
“There’s nothing we can do to save Ukraine at this point,” he said. “All we can do is save the alliance.”
Others like Ryan warn that 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 at their peril, much as Georgia was.
Hill, who also co-authored the recent book, “Mr. Putin,” said the Russian leader may simply wait out the West, slowly establishing facts on the ground that are hard to reverse.
“Time is on his side,” she said. ,” she said, “is on his side.”