Obama administration officials said Thursday that they are not considering arming the Ukrainian military, even as they raised alarms about the deployment of Russian forces along that country's southern and eastern borders. It amounted to another iteration of a pattern observed in the two-year debate over Syria's civil war, an emerging "Obama doctrine" in which the only pressure tools contemplated in a crisis are nonlethal aid and economic sanctions.
"Nobody wants the outcome here to be a full-bore military conflict between Ukraine and Russia," said a senior administration official in a conference call with reporters, although he earlier indicated the president was "deeply concerned by the positioning of Russian forces in southern and eastern Ukraine."
At the same time the administration announced more sanctions against Russian officials, as well as a "crony bank" called Bank Rossiya, Russia's 17th largest, which is controlled by Yuri Kovalchuk, whom the Treasury Department calls the "personal banker" to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior officials. One U.S. official promised that the administration was "working actively to prepare additional sanctions."
But critics of Obama's response to Putin's lightning annexation of Crimea say that "dribbling" out sanctions won't be enough, in the words of Eric Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Finland in the Clinton administration and to Turkey in the George W. Bush administration. He says "it's a mistake" to rule out military lethal aid (currently the administration has announced only that it is sending MREs—meals ready to eat—and other nonlethal assistance). "I think it's virtually inviting Putin to move more quickly," said Edelman, now a fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "It's the boiling-frog problem. At some point we have to get their attention."
He said he agrees with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post on Thursday that much harsher sanctions and diplomatic isolation of Russia is needed. "It is shameful that even as Russia attempts to carve up Ukrainian territory, Ukraine's request for weapons, intelligence sharing, and other assistance has been turned down by the Obama administration," Rubio wrote. "We also need to deploy additional military assets and even U.S. personnel to our allies, including Poland and the Baltic states."
The debate over how to respond to Ukraine's crisis is beginning to parallel, to some degree, the controversy over Obama's refusal to send lethal military aid to the Syrian rebels during the three-year-long civil war. It wasn't until last summer, after the White House determined that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons, that it indicated some weapons would go to the rebels. But the administration has been very slow to do that, and after extremist rebels seized warehouses where U.S. aid was stored, the State Department suspended all support for a time. Russia, meanwhile, has been robustly supporting Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad with military aid all that time.
Some of the harsher critics of the president, like Sen. John McCain, have suggested that Putin moved into Crimea calculating that Obama would respond in just this nonmilitary way. "Vladimir Putin must be encouraged [by] the absolute timidity," McCain said on MSNBC. "The president should have said we are going to provide military assistance to Ukraine and that it will be in defensive weaponry.… It makes me less optimistic about Putin exercising restraint in eastern Ukraine."
In an interview Wednesday, Obama said he is "not going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine.… What we are going to do is mobilize all of our diplomatic resources to make sure that we've got a strong international correlation that sends a clear message."
The question is whether the message being sent is being received.
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