Crisis in Ukraine: Obama’s options appear limited

President Obama said there would be 'costs' if Russia intervened militarily in Ukraine, which could include refusing to attend a G8 summit in Russia this summer. But the US has other important interests in maintaining a working relationship with Russia.

Ivan Sekretarev/AP
Demonstrators carry Russian flags as they rally through the streets of Crimean capital Simferopol, Ukraine, on Saturday. The Russian parliament has given President Vladimir Putin permission to use the country’s military in Ukraine, formalizing what Ukrainian officials describe as an ongoing deployment of Russian military in the country’s strategic region of Crimea.

So far, at least, the fast-moving crisis in Ukraine shows the limits of US leverage in a region that Russia clearly considers to be within its sphere of direct influence.

Within hours of President Obama’s warning of “costs for any military intervention,” Russian President Vladimir Putin was asking for – and quickly getting – parliamentary approval to use military force in Ukraine.

"In connection with the extraordinary situation in Ukraine, the threat to the lives of citizens of the Russian Federation, our compatriots, and the personnel of the armed forces of the Russian Federation … I submit a proposal on using the armed forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine until the normalization of the socio-political situation in that country," Putin said in a statement to parliament, where Putin’s “proposal” was unanimously approved.

“Our compatriots” referred to Russian-speaking Ukrainians, who comprise most of the population of Crimea. In fact, according to reports from Crimea, Russian military forces had already deployed to the region.

It was reminiscent of Russia’s 2008 military incursion into neighboring Georgia to support Russian-speaking separatists there. Russian troops remain in two disputed enclaves – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – in violation of a 2008 cease-fire.

Any US response to the situation in Ukraine may be limited, not least because the US has what it hopes is a beneficial relationship with Russia on other – perhaps more important – issues: Iran, Syria, North Korea, bilateral trade arrangements, and transporting US military troops and equipment out of Afghanistan through Russian supply routes.

Within those parameters, Obama has one widely-discussed option: canceling a trip to Russia this summer for an international summit.

President Putin is scheduled to host the Group of Eight economic gathering in June in Sochi, the site of the recently completed Winter Olympics. The US is in discussions about the summit with European partners and it is difficult to see how some of those leaders would attend the summit if Russia has forces in Crimea, administration officials told the Associated Press.

Obama canceled a bilateral meeting with President Vladimir Putin last year after Russia granted asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, though Obama still attended a separate international meeting in Russia.

The UN Security Council was to hold an urgent meeting on the crisis in Ukraine on Saturday.

On Friday, Un Ambassador Samantha Power said, “The United States calls for an urgent international mediation mission to the Crimea to begin to deescalate the situation, and facilitate productive and peaceful political dialogue among all Ukrainian parties.”

In a hastily-arranged appearance in the White House press room late Friday afternoon, Obama warned Russia there would be "costs for any military intervention” in Ukraine. Any violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity would be “deeply destabilizing,” he said, representing “profound interference” in Ukrainian efforts to remain united and politically democratic as it seeks to balance its tenuous place between Europe to the west and Russia to the east.

As yet, however, it remains unclear what those “costs” will be now that Russian military intervention in Ukraine has been confirmed by Putin himself.

“It’s a worrying and difficult situation,” former US Ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering said on NPR Saturday morning. “The President needs to do the kind of job that’s been done in the past of mobilizing the Europeans and the world community to reinforce diplomacy.”

“No one wants to see a military confrontation, no one wants to see the breakup of Ukraine,” Ambassador Pickering said.

Not surprisingly, Obama’s Republican critics were quick to urge a harder line.

In a pre-taped appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee (and much talked about 2016 presidential contender), said, "Putin's invasion of Ukraine requires immediate and decisive US leadership.”

"Russia's illegal military incursion in the Crimea region in Ukraine is a grave violation of a nation's sovereignty and cannot go unpunished,” Sen. Rubio said.

“First, President Obama should speak unequivocally and call this what it is: a military invasion,” Rubio said. “Second, President Obama should dispatch Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel to Kiev to show US support for Ukraine's transitional government. Third, the US should rally our allies to boycott this June's G8 summit in Sochi. If Russian troops do not leave Ukraine immediately, Russia should be expelled from this group. Fourth, any and all discussions and negotiations with Moscow on any issue unrelated to this crisis, including trade and other matters, should be immediately suspended.”

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