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Security Insiders: Obama Has No Leverage Over Putin

When it comes to Crimea, experts say Obama can do little to dissuade Russia’s leader.


President Obama meets with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during the G-20 summit in 2012.   (ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/GettyImage)

President Obama does not have any leverage over Russian President Vladimir Putin, a narrow majority of National Journal's National Security Insiders said.

A defiant Putin this week annexed Crimea, despite the economic sanctions the Obama administration and European Union imposed. The interim Ukrainian leaders fear Putin may try to seize more territory beyond Crimea, and the West is warning that Russia will pay a price for its meddling and violations of international law.


But a slim 53 percent majority of the security and foreign policy experts say Obama can do little to stop Putin. "He has made clear that he isn't willing to do anything to confront Putin," one Insider said. Another added: "Putin is a thug; a gangster leading a criminal nationalist state. Obama is an in-over-his-head community organizer. Guess who wins?"

The cards at Obama's disposal are limited, another Insider added. "There are limits to sanctions. Russia is not Iraq or Iran. It remains a major power with nuclear weapons."

One Insider casts the blame on the pundits, and not Obama, for his lack of leverage. "People seem to be confused. There's a 'Do something!' impulse, and there's the desire to reverse the annexation," the Insider said. "But nothing that anybody's proposing doing is going to work."


A sizable 47 percent minority says Obama does have some leverage over his Russian counterpart. "It's not quite the ability to call him up and say, 'Vlad, cut it out,' but it's not nothing either," one Insider said.

Leverage is primarily economic and political, an Insider noted. "The West has the capability to disrupt Russian economic operations and can, in time, damage Putin's internal standing."

Such economic sanctions can have a strong impact, another Insider said, but "only if they target hundreds or thousands of senior figures—not dozens."

Shifting NATO military assets toward the eastern area of the alliance, the Insider continued, "and helping to arm and train Ukrainian and Georgian military forces will strengthen deterrence against Russian aggression.… Persistent Western actions and political liberalization in Moscow may again be the combination that will some day undo the results of Moscow's newest aggression."


There are also other, more creative options. "We could try to flood the market with cheap gas and oil to bring down the rents Putin collects," one Insider said. "For gas, the infrastructure is not there, but we should amend our laws and also start building more liquified natural-gas export facilities so we have this option for future petro-states."

Separately, the Insider added, "Putin also needs access to the U.S. banking infrastructure (such as SWIFT), which we could threaten to deny as we did to Iran."

1. Does President Obama have any leverage over Russian President Vladimir Putin?

  • No 53 %
  • Yes 47%


"Putin holds most of the cards in this conflict, and he's also taken the measure of Obama and concluded that there's no downside to pressing his advantage. If Obama's red lines in Syria meant nothing, why would they mean anything here?"

"Our leverage is not zero, but insufficient to coerce any meaningful policy change from Putin."

"Not when it comes to the countries on Russia's border. Would Russia have leverage with us when it comes to U.S. policy toward Mexico?"

"Zero. Zip. Zilch."

"Not much. Russia will counter our sanctions with their own against us and Western Europe."

"It is painful to see how weak America has become."

"Personalizing the question as a standoff between Obama and Putin invites a 'no' response. Putin may be dismissing Obama much in the manner Leonid Brezhnev dismissed Carter when he sent the Red Army into Afghanistan in 1979. Brezhnev misread Carter, and Putin may be making the same mistake. We'll see."

"He potentially has but seems loath to use it."

"President Putin has strong domestic support as well as support in Eastern Ukraine; tough to leverage in the short term. This is still escalating; we need to create a firebreak and position of strength with the NATO allies; then team with Europe for longer-term economic leverage. Bit concerned that the Obama rhetorical flourish advocating democracy in the Middle East and Eastern Europe is creating chaos; … they bite off more than they can chew; the strong testosterone-laced words lack any muscle, and they are setting up democrats for certain death in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Ukraine."

"And even if we think we do, Putin doesn't agree!"


"President Obama can: 1) Sanction members of Putin's inner circle and the assets of Russian companies and banks; 2) Fast-track NATO membership for ex-Soviet states like Georgia; and 3) Bolster missile defense. It is unclear whether these steps will impact Putin's interest calculation, and whether such a change in calculation would result in a change in behavior. If President Obama goes forward with any of these steps, he should do so realizing that Russia will respond in ways that have consequences for American interests elsewhere, like in nuclear negotiations with Iran."

"Yes, but he is not using it. The leverage is military. If he wants to deter short-term aggression he needs to raise the uncertainty for Putin about his ability to succeed with further aggression. Soft power can only act as a threat of punishment, after he changes the facts on the ground and which Putin may determine he can withstand in any event."

"While its leverage may be limited, the U.S., in conjunction with the E.U., can clearly impose extensive economic sanctions. President Obama can also deploy a greater number of military assets to the NATO nations bordering Ukraine. Moscow would certainly understand that kind of signal."

"Yes, but he desperately needs Angela Merkel to partner in any set of actions."

"Not in terms of the local balance of forces, but in facilitating a settlement to the crisis that assures a genuinely neutral Ukraine."

"Plenty. Should consider missile defense in Poland. Hard-hitting economic sanctions.

"Russia is much more exposed to the global economy than it was a decade ago."

"... But not much. Geography still matters."

"Of course he does. The question is whether or not he has the courage and skill to use it."

"It's a different kind of leverage than Putin is used to dealing with."

"Financial sanctions, for sure, along with soft power leverage such as travel restrictions."

"But is he willing to make the effort to use all the tools at his disposal, in conjunction with the rest of the world, to create a strong and broad deterrent to further aggression?"

"President Obama wants to run away from the world but without strong U.S. engagement the world will get very dangerous, very quickly. His biggest foreign policy challenge to date, and Beijing is watching most closely."

"U.S. sanctions can hurt Russia. On their own, they will not force Russia to withdraw from the Crimea."

"Yes, but the leverage must be closely coordinated with the Europeans to ensure actions don't inflict too much collateral economic damage to the challenged European economies."

National Journal's National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of more than 100 defense and foreign policy experts. They include: Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Michael Allen, Thad Allen, Graham Allison, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Mark Brunner, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Janine Davidson, Daniel Drezner, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mark Green, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Todd Harrison, John Hamre, Jim Harper, Marty Hauser, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Linda Hudson, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, Michael Leiter, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Michael Morell, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Larry Prior, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Frank Ruggiero, Gary Samore, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Suzanne Spaulding, James Stavridis, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Ted Stroup, Guy Swan, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Richard Wilhelm, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.

This article appears in the March 20, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.

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