THERE ARE two crucial, and in some ways conflicting, aims that should guide the Obama administration in the days to come: The need to ensure that Russia pays a price for its illegal incursion into Ukrainian territory, and the need to resolve the conflict without resorting to Cold War-style isolation. That requires a firm demonstration of resolve followed by enough diplomatic flexibility to give Russia a chance to change course. Obama must show that while the West will act forcefully to preserve Ukraine’s sovereignty, it has no interest in severing Russia’s longstanding ties to the Crimean peninsula, where most residents are ethnically Russian.
To increase pressure on Russia, Obama should fly to Europe and convene a meeting that reinforces the sense of unity with his counterparts in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. The world’s industrialized democracies should let Putin know that Russia risks expulsion from the G-8 if it continues its actions in Ukraine.
The Europe Union, Russia’s main trading partner, could also hit Moscow in its pocketbook by curbing trade and the purchase of Russian natural gas.
And NATO should assure its members — including the former Soviet republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia — that it will stand by its treaty obligations of mutual defense.
But while tough action is necessary to punish Russian aggression, the United States has nothing to gain from reigniting the Cold War: De-escalating the Crimea conflict and convincing Russian soldiers to go back to their barracks should be the underlying goal. As tempting as it might be to pass US sanctions against Russian officials, as Senators John McCain of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee are advocating, the Obama administration should avoid actions that will merely inflame Moscow without seriously altering Putin’s calculations.
Hawks in Congress seem to forget that the United States needs Russia’s help on the most urgent global challenges today, from removing chemical weapons from Syria, to assuring that Iran doesn’t produce a nuclear bomb, to preparing for a US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Russia’s actions must also be kept in perspective. The speed with which Russia brought Crimea under its control shows the outsized influence that Moscow has long held over the semi-autonomous region, which is home to a strategically important Russian naval port and the country’s Black Sea Fleet.
Crimea, once a part of the Russian Empire, was given to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in a gesture of magnanimity at a time when the entire region was under Moscow’s control.
So far, many ethnic Russians in Crimea appear to welcome Russia’s intervention. Although Moscow has orchestrated this separatist push for its own purposes, the situation is likely to turn out much as in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two semi-autonomous regions of Georgia where Russia openly backed separatist groups before occupying with its own troops.
The United States and its European allies should demand that the territorial integrity of Ukraine be respected, as they did in the case of Georgia. But NATO is not going to war with Russia over tiny breakaway territories that say they want to ally with Moscow. The larger concern, by far, is the possibility of Russian military intervention in the rest of Ukraine, one of the largest countries in Europe. The spectacle of Russian soldiers marching into Kiev, where the people have broadcast their desire to turn towards the West, would send shock waves around the world.
Obama and his European partners must stop Russia from further military encroachment on Ukraine. Concerted, persistent, coordinated diplomacy has a good chance of success.
Putin doesn’t need to send troops to exert influence on Ukraine, whose deep dependence on Russia for natural gas and aid money are enough. The United States should consider increasing its $1 billion aid offer to the new government in Kiev, and the European Union should match it. But no one should be under any illusions that the West will come anywhere close to the $15 billion gift that Russia offered Ukraine.
However Western-looking the new leaders of the fledgling government in Kiev are, they will still wake up every morning to the reality of geography. Russia is their much wealthier and more powerful neighbor. Moscow will always care more about what happens in Ukraine than Brussels or Paris or Washington will. The sooner Kiev and Moscow come to a widely acceptable understanding about how to coexist, the better it will be for the entire world.