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As President Obama looks at the Ukraine crisis, he sees an asymmetry of interests: Simply put, the future of Ukraine means more to Vladimir Putin's Russia than it does to the United States or Europe. For Putin, this is an existential crisis; for the West, so far, it isn't - as the limited U.S. and European response has demonstrated.
Putin has exploited this imbalance, seizing Crimea and now fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, perhaps as a prelude to invasion. But in the process, Putin may be tipping the asymmetry in the other direction. For Obama, this is now becoming an existential crisis, too, about maintaining a rules-based international order.
Here's the risk for Putin: If he doesn't move to de-escalate the crisis soon, by negotiating with the Ukrainians at a meeting in Geneva starting today, he could begin to suffer significant long-term consequences. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will oppose Russia's use of force, and even the Chinese (who normally don't mind bullying of neighbors) are uneasy.
As Russian agents infiltrate eastern Ukraine, backed by about 40,000 troops just across the border, the White House sees Putin weighing three options, all bad for the West:
• A federal Ukraine that would lean toward Moscow. The acting government in Kiev signaled this week it might move in this direction, following the turmoil in eastern Ukraine. Putin wants a decentralization plan that grants so much power to the Russian-speaking east that Russia would have an effective veto on Ukraine's policies.
• Annexation of eastern Ukraine, along the model of Crimea. The pro-Russian "demonstrators" who have seized buildings in Donetsk, Kharkiv and other eastern cities have already demanded a referendum on joining Russia, which was the prelude in Crimea. The State Department says the protesters' moves are orchestrated by the Russian intelligence service.
• Invasion, using the pretext of civil war in eastern Ukraine. If the acting government in Kiev (which on Tuesday reclaimed an airport in the East) tries to crack down hard, Putin might use this as a rationale for Russian military intervention. (U.S. intelligence analysts think Russian troops would have invaded several weeks ago if the West hadn't threatened serious sanctions.)
U.S. analysts believe that Putin would rather not invade. He prefers the veneer of legitimacy, and his instincts as a former intelligence officer push him toward paramilitary covert action, rather than rolling tanks across an international border. But Russian troops are provisioned for a long stay - a warning sign that Putin will keep the threat of force alive until his demands are met.
Obama had regarded Putin as the ultimate transactional politician, so the White House has been flummoxed by Putin's unbending stance on Ukraine. In phone conversations with Obama, most recently Monday, Putin hasn't used strident rhetoric. Instead, he offers his narrative of anti-Russian activities in Ukraine. Putin is now so locked in this combative version of events that space for diplomacy has almost disappeared.
Obama's critics will argue that he has always misread Putin by failing to recognize the bullying side of his nature. Even now, Obama is wary of making Ukraine a test of wills. He appears ready to endorse a Cold War-style "Finlandization" for Ukraine, in which membership of the European Union would be a distant prospect and NATO membership would be off the table.
This in-between role for Ukraine would probably be fine with Europeans. They've had such trouble absorbing the current 28 EU members that they don't want another headache. Like Obama, the Europeans stumbled into this crisis, overpromising and underdelivering.
Obama doesn't want to turn Ukraine into a proxy war with Russia. For this reason, he is resisting proposals to arm the Ukrainians. The White House thinks arming Kiev at this late stage would invite Russian intervention without affecting the outcome. The United States is providing limited intelligence support for Kiev, but nothing that would tilt the balance.
Obama's strategy is to make Putin pay for his adventurism, long term. Unless the Russian leader moves quickly to de-escalate the crisis, the United States will push for measures that could make Russia significantly weaker over the next few years. Those moves could include sanctions on Russian energy and arms exports, deployment of U.S. NATO troops in the Baltic states, and aggressive efforts to reduce European dependence on Russian gas.
Obama's task now is to convince allies and adversaries alike that maintaining international order is something he's ready to stand up for. Unless he shows that resolve, Putin will keep rolling.