WASHINGTON — President 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 penalties, 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 US 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 US response 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? That’s the $64,000 question,” said Brigadier General Kevin Ryan, a retired Army officer who served as defense attaché in the US Embassy in Moscow and now, as a Harvard scholar, leads a group of former Russian and US 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 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.