Obama’s Got a Squeeze Box

Can Putin sleep at night?

March 6, 2014
National Journal
Major Garrett
March 6, 2014, 4:56 p.m.

“It’s sort of like an ac­cor­di­on.”

That was White House press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney’s de­scrip­tion of eco­nom­ic sanc­tions the ad­min­is­tra­tion might im­pose on ne­far­i­ous Rus­si­ans or Ukrain­i­an klepto­crats at the cen­ter of the Crimean crisis.

Pres­id­ent Obama is all about flex­ib­il­ity. Of course, that is a par­tic­u­larly nag­ging word in re­gard to Obama and Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin. It re­minds con­ser­vat­ive crit­ics of Obama’s March 2012 ex­plan­a­tion to out­go­ing Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Dmitry Med­ve­dev that he would have “more flex­ib­il­ity” to deal with Rus­sia after win­ning reelec­tion. Med­ve­dev, who kept the pres­id­en­tial seat warm for Putin’s re­turn, vowed to “trans­mit this in­form­a­tion to Vladi­mir.”

The con­text was U.S.-Rus­si­an dis­agree­ments over mis­sile-de­fense sites in Europe, but they echo un­help­fully for Obama now. They make Obama sound need­lessly pli­able. And the early stages of the Crimean saga, even White House loy­al­ists agree, did little to con­vey ac­tion, pas­sion, or strength.

Be­hind-the-scenes man­euv­er­ing with European al­lies and pal­lid, place­hold­er state­ments about the primacy of demo­cracy and sov­er­eignty rarely do (see, Bush, George W., and Geor­gia.) The big dif­fer­ence — hun­dreds were killed and thou­sands were in­jured in Geor­gia. Since Putin’s troops have ar­rived in Crimea — no deaths and no in­jur­ies. Only a lot of sneer­ing.

But even as Obama moves in­cre­ment­ally to­ward ac­tion, the concept of flex­ib­il­ity re­turns. His ex­ec­ut­ive or­der es­tab­lish­ing a “frame­work” for eco­nom­ic sanc­tions provides no end of it. Frame­works sound ri­gid but move like an ac­cor­di­on. They can ex­pand or con­tract based on cir­cum­stances, geo­pol­it­ic­al cal­cu­la­tions, and gump­tion.

As The Who sang in 1975, eco­nom­ic sanc­tions of the kind Obama has fash­ioned can “go in and out and in and out.” Flex­ibly. As a tool of state­craft, this stanza from the song “Squeeze Box,” sounds ap­pro­pri­ate.

Well the kids don’t eat

And the dog can’t sleep

There’s no es­cape from the mu­sic

In the whole damn street

What Obama does or does not do with the now-threatened sanc­tions and how Putin re­acts will form the dip­lo­mat­ic back-beat to the Crimean stan­doff (and let’s face it, as an ear­worm “Squeeze­box” beats the hell out of all the silly cable TV “crisis” dirges).

Obama’s ac­cor­di­on of sanc­tions can “go in and out” as he pleases, which is not to sug­gest Obama is the band­mas­ter in Ukraine (more on that in a minute). Obama could levy sanc­tions against one Rus­si­an, 100 Rus­si­ans, or no Rus­si­ans. He could sanc­tion Putin. He could sanc­tion Vic­tor Ya­nukovych, who used to be Ukraine’s pres­id­ent be­fore he ab­dic­ated and whose as­sets the European Uni­on sought to freeze on Thursday. Or Obama could wait and do noth­ing. Flex­ibly, he could say the threat of sanc­tions re­mains po­tent in its po­ten­ti­al­ity.

What’s cru­cial to un­der­stand about the go-slow ap­proach is there is evid­ence to sug­gest it’s work­ing or — at min­im­um — isn’t the cata­strophe crit­ics have al­leged. Even the im­plied threat of ac­cor­di­on-like sanc­tions has yiel­ded res­ults. Obama an­nounced the sanc­tions and visa re­voc­a­tions, and they did not chill on­go­ing talks between Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry and Rus­si­an For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lav­rov.

Later in the day, Obama and Putin talked for an hour. That means Putin chose to ne­go­ti­ate in­stead of es­cal­ate.

In Thursday’s phone con­ver­sa­tion, Obama for the second time in less than a week out­lined a pos­sible res­ol­u­tion in Crimea: Rus­si­an troops re­turn to their treaty-le­git­im­ized bases, Putin agrees to al­low in­ter­na­tion­al ob­serv­ers in­to Crimea, and Rus­sia aban­dons a se­ces­sion­ist ref­er­en­dum and com­mits to the glob­al co­ali­tion back­ing the May 26 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Obama first raised this more gen­er­ally in his 90-minute phone call Sat­urday with Putin. That both lead­ers re­vis­ited the top­ic and the Krem­lin did not de­nounce it after Thursday’s call sug­gests it’s a live op­tion.

Obama knows his op­tions are lim­ited but also that in­ter­na­tion­al pres­sure gath­ers in­cre­ment­ally, if it gath­ers at all. Obama ran as an in­ter­na­tion­al­ist spe­cial­iz­ing in the subtle sua­sion of soft power. That this ap­proach con­trasts un­help­fully (at least in terms of op­tics and among some pun­dits) with Putin’s na­tion­al­ist para­noia and an­ti­demo­crat­ic tend­en­cies means noth­ing to Obama. There are no U.S. mil­it­ary op­tions, merely mil­it­ary muscle flex­ing in the gen­er­al neigh­bor­hood (hello, Balt­ic States and Po­land).

Now, to the ques­tion of who is call­ing the tune in Crimea.

Obama has cal­cu­lated from the start that Putin looks stronger than he ac­tu­ally is and his mil­it­ary for­ay has real and prac­tic­al lim­its. Putin entered the only re­gion of Ukraine where there was no risk of mil­it­ary con­front­a­tion or mis­un­der­stand­ing — Crimea. From that perch, Obama and his team be­lieve Putin is im­pro­vising as much as he is strategiz­ing. The goal, they as­sume, is that Putin wants to use the threat of an ad hoc and il­leg­al an­nex­ing of Crimea to ex­ert some in­flu­ence over Ukraine’s new polit­ic­al fu­ture and keep his Black Sea fleet in a safe, warm-wa­ter port. This gam­bit is all that’s left to Putin, the White House be­lieves, after hav­ing con­spicu­ously and em­bar­rass­ingly lost Ukraine as a cli­ent-state with a genu­inely pli­able pup­pet pres­id­ent.

The White House be­lieves Putin cares more about Rus­sia’s eco­nom­ic health and dip­lo­mat­ic clout than it does about Crimea. Oth­er ana­lysts dis­agree. This as­sump­tion drives Obama’s policy. Yes, Putin has changed the facts on the ground in Crimea — but only by jeop­ard­iz­ing the bal­ance sheets of Rus­si­an ol­ig­archs and risk­ing in­ter­na­tion­al isol­a­tion. Even China, which might have been as­sumed to be nom­in­ally sup­port­ive, has been equi­voc­al. (Beijing, after all, has deep eco­nom­ic ties with Ukraine and ab­hors in­ter­fer­ence in in­tern­al mat­ters.) Putin’s about to lose his G-8 sum­mit in So­chi, and the White House, seni­or of­fi­cials tell me, is now push­ing for an al­tern­ate G-7 sum­mit to un­der­cut Putin’s cher­ished stand­ing among the world’s lead­ing eco­nom­ies.

And Rus­sia will have some ex­plain­ing to do if the Crimea crisis is still go­ing and 58 na­tions con­vene in The Hag­ue for the Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit and Putin will have vi­ol­ated one of the sig­na­ture post-Cold War non­pro­lif­er­a­tion agree­ments — the Bud­apest Memor­andum.

Un­der that agree­ment, Ukraine gave up its en­tire nuc­le­ar stock­pile (then the world’s third largest) in ex­change for a prom­ise from Rus­sia and the United States that neither na­tion will in­ter­fere with it eco­nom­ic­ally or at­tempt to in­tim­id­ate it polit­ic­ally. This may sound like a lot of dip­lo­mat­ic fluff, but Rus­sia, which re­tains for­mid­able nuc­le­ar stock­piles, craves a seat at the non­pro­lif­er­a­tion table — if for no oth­er reas­on that it re­minds oth­er na­tions to re­spect/fear Rus­sia’s ar­sen­al.

Yes, flex­ib­il­ity is a word that works against Obama. Ac­cor­di­on-like sanc­tions look and sound puny. Putin’s troops are patrolling Crimea il­leg­ally and con­trolling loc­al tele­vi­sion — also il­leg­ally. Troops and para­mil­it­ary sym­path­izers men­ace out­siders. This has the po­ten­tial to ex­plode. But that’s been true for days, and it hasn’t. Mean­while, Putin con­tin­ues talk­ing, not es­cal­at­ing.

And that might sug­gest Obama’s squeeze box is keep­ing Putin up at night.

The au­thor is Na­tion­al Journ­al Cor­res­pond­ent-at-Large and Chief White House Cor­res­pond­ent for CBS News. He is also a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs.

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