During Monday’s daily White House press briefing, as pro-Russian protests spread through Ukrainian cities, reporters asked press secretary Jay Carney more than 30 questions related to Russia. On Tuesday, when Ukraine began mobilizing troops to quell unrest, Carney fielded 30 more.
Questions about U.S. strategy in the Ukraine crisis have ranged from the small (Q: What was President Obama’s tone like in a call to Russian President Vladimir Putin? A: Frank and firm) to the large (Q: Is the U.S. considering arming the Ukrainians? A: No).
Unsurprisingly, Carney did not provide concrete answers to many of them. But the verbal maneuvering doesn’t necessarily mean the White House is purposefully hiding its strategy. The lack of answers may signal that, right now, the Obama administration can’t predict Putin’s next move with any certainty.
Carney did hint to reporters Wednesday that the White House has prepared new sanctions, but he didn’t say when those might be imposed.
“We are involved in assessing what Russia has been doing, what it’s doing now, what its possible next actions might be,” Carney said. “And we’re doing that in the context of what costs we might impose — we collectively might impose on Russia for the actions they undertake.”
In other words, the White House is staying careful about charging Russia for action it has not yet taken, even as Russian and Ukrainian forces teeter on the brink of military confrontation. It’s playing the same “wait and see” card that it did ahead of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula.
“Political observers both in Russia and the West are once again reduced not to analyzing data or strategy, but to reading the tea leaves and psychoanalyzing a man whose psyche bends toward unpredictability,” The New Republic‘s Julia Ioffe wrote last week, when Russian troops began amassing along Ukraine’s border in earnest.
But this time, the U.S. may not wait too long. Carney’s mention of forthcoming sanctions signals that the U.S. may want to punish Russia before a possible second intervention, rather than reacting to one it cannot reverse.