Security Insiders: Obama Has No Leverage Over Putin

When it comes to Crimea, experts say Obama can do little to dissuade Russia’s leader.

President Barack Obama (R) meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin (L) in Los Cabos, Mexico, on June 18, 2012, during the G20 leaders Summit.   
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
March 19, 2014, 12:01 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama does not have any lever­age over Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin, a nar­row ma­jor­ity of Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity In­siders said.

A de­fi­ant Putin this week an­nexed Crimea, des­pite the eco­nom­ic sanc­tions the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and European Uni­on im­posed. The in­ter­im Ukrain­i­an lead­ers fear Putin may try to seize more ter­rit­ory bey­ond Crimea, and the West is warn­ing that Rus­sia will pay a price for its med­dling and vi­ol­a­tions of in­ter­na­tion­al law.

But a slim 53 per­cent ma­jor­ity of the se­cur­ity and for­eign policy ex­perts say Obama can do little to stop Putin. “He has made clear that he isn’t will­ing to do any­thing to con­front Putin,” one In­sider said. An­oth­er ad­ded: “Putin is a thug; a gang­ster lead­ing a crim­in­al na­tion­al­ist state. Obama is an in-over-his-head com­munity or­gan­izer. Guess who wins?”

The cards at Obama’s dis­pos­al are lim­ited, an­oth­er In­sider ad­ded. “There are lim­its to sanc­tions. Rus­sia is not Ir­aq or Ir­an. It re­mains a ma­jor power with nuc­le­ar weapons.”

One In­sider casts the blame on the pun­dits, and not Obama, for his lack of lever­age. “People seem to be con­fused. There’s a ‘Do something!’ im­pulse, and there’s the de­sire to re­verse the an­nex­a­tion,” the In­sider said. “But noth­ing that any­body’s pro­pos­ing do­ing is go­ing to work.”

A siz­able 47 per­cent minor­ity says Obama does have some lever­age over his Rus­si­an coun­ter­part. “It’s not quite the abil­ity to call him up and say, ‘Vlad, cut it out,’ but it’s not noth­ing either,” one In­sider said.

Lever­age is primar­ily eco­nom­ic and polit­ic­al, an In­sider noted. “The West has the cap­ab­il­ity to dis­rupt Rus­si­an eco­nom­ic op­er­a­tions and can, in time, dam­age Putin’s in­tern­al stand­ing.”

Such eco­nom­ic sanc­tions can have a strong im­pact, an­oth­er In­sider said, but “only if they tar­get hun­dreds or thou­sands of seni­or fig­ures — not dozens.”

Shift­ing NATO mil­it­ary as­sets to­ward the east­ern area of the al­li­ance, the In­sider con­tin­ued, “and help­ing to arm and train Ukrain­i­an and Geor­gi­an mil­it­ary forces will strengthen de­terrence against Rus­si­an ag­gres­sion.”¦ Per­sist­ent West­ern ac­tions and polit­ic­al lib­er­al­iz­a­tion in Mo­scow may again be the com­bin­a­tion that will some day undo the res­ults of Mo­scow’s new­est ag­gres­sion.”

There are also oth­er, more cre­at­ive op­tions. “We could try to flood the mar­ket with cheap gas and oil to bring down the rents Putin col­lects,” one In­sider said. “For gas, the in­fra­struc­ture is not there, but we should amend our laws and also start build­ing more li­quified nat­ur­al-gas ex­port fa­cil­it­ies so we have this op­tion for fu­ture petro-states.”

Sep­ar­ately, the In­sider ad­ded, “Putin also needs ac­cess to the U.S. bank­ing in­fra­struc­ture (such as SWIFT), which we could threaten to deny as we did to Ir­an.”

1. Does Pres­id­ent Obama have any lever­age over Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin?

  • No 53 %
  • Yes 47%


“Putin holds most of the cards in this con­flict, and he’s also taken the meas­ure of Obama and con­cluded that there’s no down­side to press­ing his ad­vant­age. If Obama’s red lines in Syr­ia meant noth­ing, why would they mean any­thing here?”

“Our lever­age is not zero, but in­suf­fi­cient to co­erce any mean­ing­ful policy change from Putin.”

“Not when it comes to the coun­tries on Rus­sia’s bor­der. Would Rus­sia have lever­age with us when it comes to U.S. policy to­ward Mex­ico?”

“Zero. Zip. Zilch.”

“Not much. Rus­sia will counter our sanc­tions with their own against us and West­ern Europe.”

“It is pain­ful to see how weak Amer­ica has be­come.”

“Per­son­al­iz­ing the ques­tion as a stan­doff between Obama and Putin in­vites a ‘no’ re­sponse. Putin may be dis­miss­ing Obama much in the man­ner Le­onid Brezh­nev dis­missed Carter when he sent the Red Army in­to Afgh­anistan in 1979. Brezh­nev mis­read Carter, and Putin may be mak­ing the same mis­take. We’ll see.”

“He po­ten­tially has but seems loath to use it.”

“Pres­id­ent Putin has strong do­mest­ic sup­port as well as sup­port in East­ern Ukraine; tough to lever­age in the short term. This is still es­cal­at­ing; we need to cre­ate a firebreak and po­s­i­tion of strength with the NATO al­lies; then team with Europe for longer-term eco­nom­ic lever­age. Bit con­cerned that the Obama rhet­or­ic­al flour­ish ad­voc­at­ing demo­cracy in the Middle East and East­ern Europe is cre­at­ing chaos; “¦ they bite off more than they can chew; the strong testoster­one-laced words lack any muscle, and they are set­ting up demo­crats for cer­tain death in Egypt, Libya, Syr­ia, Ukraine.”

“And even if we think we do, Putin doesn’t agree!”


“Pres­id­ent Obama can: 1) Sanc­tion mem­bers of Putin’s in­ner circle and the as­sets of Rus­si­an com­pan­ies and banks; 2) Fast-track NATO mem­ber­ship for ex-So­viet states like Geor­gia; and 3) Bol­ster mis­sile de­fense. It is un­clear wheth­er these steps will im­pact Putin’s in­terest cal­cu­la­tion, and wheth­er such a change in cal­cu­la­tion would res­ult in a change in be­ha­vi­or. If Pres­id­ent Obama goes for­ward with any of these steps, he should do so real­iz­ing that Rus­sia will re­spond in ways that have con­sequences for Amer­ic­an in­terests else­where, like in nuc­le­ar ne­go­ti­ations with Ir­an.”

“Yes, but he is not us­ing it. The lever­age is mil­it­ary. If he wants to de­ter short-term ag­gres­sion he needs to raise the un­cer­tainty for Putin about his abil­ity to suc­ceed with fur­ther ag­gres­sion. Soft power can only act as a threat of pun­ish­ment, after he changes the facts on the ground and which Putin may de­term­ine he can with­stand in any event.”

“While its lever­age may be lim­ited, the U.S., in con­junc­tion with the E.U., can clearly im­pose ex­tens­ive eco­nom­ic sanc­tions. Pres­id­ent Obama can also de­ploy a great­er num­ber of mil­it­ary as­sets to the NATO na­tions bor­der­ing Ukraine. Mo­scow would cer­tainly un­der­stand that kind of sig­nal.”

“Yes, but he des­per­ately needs An­gela Merkel to part­ner in any set of ac­tions.”

“Not in terms of the loc­al bal­ance of forces, but in fa­cil­it­at­ing a set­tle­ment to the crisis that as­sures a genu­inely neut­ral Ukraine.”

“Plenty. Should con­sider mis­sile de­fense in Po­land. Hard-hit­ting eco­nom­ic sanc­tions.

“Rus­sia is much more ex­posed to the glob­al eco­nomy than it was a dec­ade ago.”

“… But not much. Geo­graphy still mat­ters.”

“Of course he does. The ques­tion is wheth­er or not he has the cour­age and skill to use it.”

“It’s a dif­fer­ent kind of lever­age than Putin is used to deal­ing with.”

“Fin­an­cial sanc­tions, for sure, along with soft power lever­age such as travel re­stric­tions.”

“But is he will­ing to make the ef­fort to use all the tools at his dis­pos­al, in con­junc­tion with the rest of the world, to cre­ate a strong and broad de­terrent to fur­ther ag­gres­sion?”

“Pres­id­ent Obama wants to run away from the world but without strong U.S. en­gage­ment the world will get very dan­ger­ous, very quickly. His biggest for­eign policy chal­lenge to date, and Beijing is watch­ing most closely.”

“U.S. sanc­tions can hurt Rus­sia. On their own, they will not force Rus­sia to with­draw from the Crimea.”

“Yes, but the lever­age must be closely co­ordin­ated with the Europeans to en­sure ac­tions don’t in­flict too much col­lat­er­al eco­nom­ic dam­age to the chal­lenged European eco­nom­ies.”

Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity In­siders Poll is a peri­od­ic sur­vey of more than 100 de­fense and for­eign policy ex­perts. They in­clude: Gor­don Adams, Charles Al­len, Mi­chael Al­len, Thad Al­len, Gra­ham Al­lis­on, James Bam­ford, Dav­id Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Ber­gen, Samuel “Sandy” Ber­ger, Dav­id Ber­teau, Steph­en Biddle, Nancy Bird­sall, Mari­on Blakey, Kit Bond, Stu­art Bowen, Paula Broad­well, Mike Breen, Mark Brun­ner, Steven Bucci, Nich­olas Burns, Dan By­man, James Jay Cara­fano, Phil­lip Carter, Wendy Cham­ber­lin, Mi­chael Cher­toff, Frank Cil­luffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clem­ons, Joseph Collins, Wil­li­am Court­ney, Lorne Cran­er, Ro­ger Cres­sey, Gregory Dahl­berg, Robert Dan­in, Richard Dan­zig, Jan­ine Dav­id­son, Daniel Drezn­er, Mack­en­zie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, An­drew Ex­um, Wil­li­am Fal­lon, Eric Farns­worth, Jacques Gansler, Steph­en Gan­yard, Daniel Goure, Mark Green, Mike Green, Mark Gun­zinger, Todd Har­ris­on, John Hamre, Jim Harp­er, Marty Haus­er, Mi­chael Hay­den, Mi­chael Her­son, Pete Hoek­stra, Bruce Hoff­man, Linda Hud­son, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Don­ald Ker­rick, Rachel Klein­feld, Lawrence Korb, Dav­id Kramer, An­drew Kre­pinev­ich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, Mi­chael Leit­er, James Lind­say, Justin Lo­gan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ron­ald Marks, Bri­an Mc­Caf­frey, Steven Metz, Frank­lin Miller, Mi­chael Mo­rell, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kev­in Neal­er, Mi­chael Oates, Thomas Pick­er­ing, Paul Pil­lar, Larry Pri­or, Steph­en Rade­maker, Marc Rai­mondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Ro­ten­berg, Frank Rug­giero, Gary Sam­ore, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Steph­en Ses­t­an­ovich, Sarah Se­wall, Mat­thew Sher­man, Jen­nifer Sims, Su­z­anne Spauld­ing, James Stav­rid­is, Con­stan­ze Stelzen­müller, Ted Stroup, Guy Swan, Frances Town­send, Mick Train­or, Richard Wil­helm, Tamara Wittes, Dov Za­kheim, and Juan Za­r­ate.

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