Crisis in Ukraine: As Russia surges, is US still a 'superpower'?

The US and its European allies are threatening economic sanctions against Russia over its military incursion into Ukraine. But the crisis raises questions about a new cold war and the US as the lone superpower.

Vasily Fedosenko/REUTERS
A Russian serviceman stands guard outside a Ukrainian military unit outside Simferopol. Ukraine mobilized for war on Sunday, and Washington threatened to isolate Russia economically after President Vladimir Putin declared he had the right to invade his neighbour, creating Moscow's biggest confrontation with the West since the cold war.

UPDATE 5:00 pm: A senior administration official says Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev Tuesday to meet with government officials as a show of support.

As the fast-moving crisis in Ukraine shows no sign of winding down, the United States – frequently dubbed the lone remaining “superpower” since the Soviet Union fragmented and fell – finds its place in the world questioned and perhaps tenuous.

Put another way, is the two-power cold war heating up again?

More immediately, does the Obama administration have any effective options to influence behavior in Ukraine as Russian military forces surge there, taking over its Crimea region, and amounting to what interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk calls "a declaration of war”?

As hundreds of armed men in trucks and armored vehicles surrounded a Ukrainian military base in Crimea Sunday, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk said, "We are on the brink of disaster.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry was the point man for the Obama administration as he made the rounds of the Sunday morning television news programs.

“It’s an incredible act of aggression. It is really a stunning willful choice by [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin to invade another country,” Secretary Kerry said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Russia is in violation of the sovereignty of Ukraine,” Kerry said. “Russia is in violation of its international obligations. Russia is in violation of its obligations under the UN charter, under the Helsinki Final Act. It's in violation of its obligations under the 1994 Budapest agreement. You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.”

(From Mr. Putin’s point of view, that “pretext” is protecting the majority Russian-speakers in Crimea.)

On NBC's "Meet the Press," Kerry said Russia “is inviting opprobrium on the international stage,” and he laid out steps the US and other countries are considering. Based on his discussions with other foreign ministers since the Russian military incursion into Ukraine, Kerry said, "They’re simply going to isolate Russia."

"They're not going to engage with Russia in a normal, business-as-usual manner," he said. “There could even be ultimately asset freezes, visa bans. There could be certainly a disruption of any of the normal trade routine, and there could be business drawback on investment in the country. The ruble is already going down and feeling the impact of this."

The US, France, and Britain already have pulled out of preparatory talks for the G-8 trade and finance summit scheduled to be held in Sochi, Russia, in June.

Still, Kerry said, “We’re not trying to make this a battle between East and West, we’re not trying to make this a cold war.”

Ukraine is not a member of NATO, which means that the US and its NATO allies are not obliged to intervene militarily. That seems impossible to contemplate anyway given US and European public – and therefore political – attitudes toward engaging in armed conflict in the region.

President Obama – sometimes chided for “leading from behind” – is more inclined to try every diplomatic option. His two top Cabinet officials here – Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel – are Vietnam combat veterans who know first-hand the cost of war. And the American public, after witnessing more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, has little desire to send more US troops abroad.

Mr. Obama’s Republican critics have been quick to weigh in on what they see as the administration’s failure to read Russian intentions and capabilities. (They forget, perhaps, that it was former President George W. Bush who said of Putin, "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy…. I was able to get a sense of his soul.")

“Putin is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles, and I don’t think it’s even close,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on “Fox News Sunday.” 

“They’ve been running circles around us,” Representative Rogers said. “And I believe it’s the naïve position on the National Security Council and the president’s advisers that, if we just keep giving things to Russia, they’ll wake up and say, 'the United States is not that bad.’ That is completely missing the motivations of why Russia does what Russia does.”

Still, Rogers concedes, “There are not a lot of options on the table.”

“Candidly, I’m a fairly hawkish guy, [but] sending more naval forces to operate in the Black Sea is really not a very good idea, given that we know that that day has long passed, and unless you’re intending to use them, I wouldn’t send them,” he said. “Now you’ve got only economic options through the EU.”

Some question whether even that will work.

In a Politico magazine piece headlined “Why Russia No Longer Fears the West,” Ben Judah, author of “Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin,” writes:

“Once upon a time the Kremlin feared a foreign adventure might trigger Cold War economic sanctions where it hurts: export bans on key parts for its oil industry, even being cut out of its access to the Western banking sector. No more…. Russia is confident there will be no Western economic counterattack. They believe the Europeans will not sanction the Russian oligarch money. They believe Americans will not punish the Russian oligarchs by blocking their access to banks. Russia is certain a military counterattack is out of the question. They expect America to only posture. Cancel the G-8? Who cares?”

In a New York Times op-ed column Jan. 28, written as the violence in Kiev and other cities began to escalate, four former US ambassadors to Ukraine (John E. Herbst, William Green Miller, Steven K. Pifer, and William B. Taylor Jr.) warned that “Western influence in Ukraine is real but limited and could fade.”

“The United States and European Union should apply it now,” the ambassadors urged, “lest the West find itself watching Ukraine succumb to widespread violence that it cannot stop.”

The question now is, has that influence faded altogether?

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