As the Russian intervention in Ukraine grows deeper, the pressure is on for the United States to follow through on its warnings.
In a referendum that the U.S. and other Western powers declared illegitimate, more than 96 percent of Crimeans voted Sunday to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Just a day later, the Crimean parliament has voted to move the peninsula to Moscow time (two hours ahead) starting March 30, and made the ruble its official currency.
The White House has refused to recognize the results of the referendum. "The referendum in Crimea was a clear violation of Ukrainian constitutions and international law, and it will not be recognized by the international community," President Obama said Monday. The president said he believes peaceful, diplomatic resolution to the crisis is still possible. "Going forward, we can calibrate our response based on whether Russia chooses to escalate or de-escalate the situation."
For U.S. officials, it's crunch time. A Russian annexation of the peninsula, a sovereign territory of Ukraine, is quickly becoming a possibility, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to respond to the vote on Tuesday.
But the Obama administration's options to confront Putin are relatively limited. The U.S. has already canceled preparations for a summertime G-8 summit in Sochi that would have included Russia, and halted all military-to-military engagements with the country. It has also imposed visa bans on Russian officials it feels are responsible for the intervention in Ukraine. Crimea's shift toward Russia is upping the ante, but additional actions will likely be symbolic as well.
President Obama Speaks on Ukraine
Here is what the U.S. can do in the coming weeks:
Expand travel restrictions on, and freeze assets for, key Russian officials. If the country's rich oligarchs start to see their cash flow ebbing, they might put pressure on Putin to negotiate with the West. The White House announced an executive order Monday for sanctions against 11 individuals, including Putin aides and advisers, the de facto Crimean prime minister, Crimean separatist leaders, and ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Impose economic and trade sanctions. Especially where it hurts, such as the energy sector. The U.S. can also join with its European allies for a multilateral sanctions regime to isolate Russia internationally. But much of Europe, heavily dependent on Russian energy exports, has been hesitant to act.
Send financial aid to Ukraine. Secretary of State John Kerry offered $1 billion in American loan guarantees to the new leadership in Kiev earlier this month, an an aid bill is expected to pass in Congress in two weeks.
Send limited military aid to Ukraine. Kiev has asked for U.S. military assistance, including weapons and intelligence support, but the Obama administration has so far agreed to provide only military meal rations. Most Washington lawmakers agree that U.S. military action in Ukraine is not an option. But some, including senators who traveled to Ukraine in the past few days, are coming around.
Maintain a military presence in the region. The Pentagon said Friday that a U.S. aircraft carrier and its battle group would remain on assignment in the Mediterranean Sea for several extra days in response to the escalating crisis.
Request to revoke Russia's membership in the G-8. Kicking Russia out of the coalition of the world's leading industrialized nations would isolate Putin from Western leaders.
Keep Russia out of other political and economic alliances. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development suspended talks related to Russia's accession to the organization, comprised of the world's most advanced economies, including the United States. OECD has promised to strengthen its relationship with Ukraine, which is already a member.
Keep up diplomacy. A last-minute effort to halt Sunday's vote in Crimea failed Friday, when talks between Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov broke down after six hours. But the White House has recharged and is sending Vice President Joe Biden to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia this week to discuss the Ukraine crisis. Obama announced Monday that he will travel to Europe next week.
Some Obama administration officials have reportedly concluded that sanctions could badly damage the Russian economy, but others worry that they could result in losses for major American companies that do business with Russia. The threat of sanctions has proved ineffective so far, and it's likely that their implementation will not pressure Russia to change its course of action, at least not in the short term. Sanctions could instead trigger retaliation from the Kremlin, which has warned that such restrictions are "counterproductive." Putin has shown himself to be an unpredictable leader in this crisis, and the U.S. cannot underestimate his willingness for confrontation.
Whatever the Obama administrations decides, wading through the crisis is going to take time, and it's not going to be easy. The Guardian's Michael Cohen writes:
But as our long effort to bring Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear ambition reminds us, such steps will take time and diplomatic effort to bring results. They won't offer the guarantee of a satisfactory result, and they could produce significant economic backlash for U.S. companies—and, more directly, U.S. allies.
In the end, we're stuck arguing over policy responses that largely dance around the margins, and a situation in which Europe's actions likely matter more than America's.
As Putin moves to bring Crimea back into the Russian fold, the U.S. and the West scramble to draw up concrete plans for sanctions and other punitive measures. The world will know soon enough how Putin will react to the global pressure.