The White House Doesn’t Know What Vladimir Putin Is Up To

And that means the administration is being pretty careful about making any policy promises in public.

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a glass of champagne during a lunch hosted by the office of the Russian President Vladimir Putin for the Presidents of the International Paralympic Committee member organizations during the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Games on March 13, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
April 16, 2014, 12:18 p.m.

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.

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