What Can the U.S. Do in Ukraine? Not Much.

As a Russian annexation of Crimea becomes a reality, the West scrambles to put the pressure on Vladimir Putin.

National Journal
Marina Koren
March 17, 2014, 5:55 a.m.

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.

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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.

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