Crisis in Ukraine: What should US do now?

For Washington, the Ukraine question now may be less how to react to Russia's seizure of the Crimean Peninsula as what to do to try to stop further Russian expansionism.

Mike Theiler/Reuters
A Ukrainian-American family in native dress joins dozens of protesters to demonstrate against Russia's military intervention in Crimea, in front of the Russian Embassy in Washington March 2, 2014. Russian forces have seized the Crimean Peninsula - an isolated Black Sea peninsula with an ethnic Russian majority and where Moscow has a naval base.

As Moscow tightens its grip on the Crimean Peninsula, Washington is facing up to a harsh reality: In Ukraine, there’s a vast imbalance in power and national interests between the United States and a resurgent imperial Russia.

After the cold war, the influence of the West expanded quickly up to Russia’s borders. Moscow had to accept a unified Germany, as well as NATO memberships for nations that used to be the USSR’s buffer zone, from Poland to Latvia. Now Vladimir Putin has seized on an opportunity to push back: He’s poured thousands of troops into Crimea in an apparent attempt to destabilize a new Western-oriented Ukrainian government.

America’s problem is that it is no longer 1997. Russia is not preoccupied with internal political and economic turmoil. And in past decades, the West expanded its influence beyond the area it is prepared to use force to defend. Mr. Putin understands this – and so do President Obama and his Republican critics.

Thus there’s little saber rattling in Washington. GOP lawmakers are talking about responses that differ only modestly from the Obama administration’s: draw up economic sanctions, put planning for the upcoming G8 summit in Sochi, Russia, on hold, and so forth.

“There [are] not a lot of options on the table,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Instead, Republicans are using the crisis as an opportunity to talk more broadly about what they say is Mr. Obama’s overall foreign policy weakness. Their question essentially is less “what next?” than “who lost Sevastopol?”

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, possible 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida said the president erred badly in Syria, allowing Putin to essentially hijack the effort to destroy the regime’s chemical weapons. Obama should not have canceled plans to put missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, said Senator Rubio and other Republicans appearing on Sunday talk shows.

“I think our policy towards Russia under this administration deserves a heavy amount of criticism,” Rubio said.

In multiple appearances over the weekend Secretary of State John Kerry rejected this charge, saying in essence that it’s easy to complain about the music from the balcony when you’re not playing in the orchestra. He ticked off what he said were accomplishments in US-Russian relations, from Russian cooperation in the effort to curb Iran’s nuclear program to progress in US-Russian nuclear arms talks.

“Long ago, we’ve entered into a different phase with Russia,” Secretary Kerry said on NBC.

For Washington, the question now may be less how to react to Russia’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula as what to do to try to stop further Russian expansionism.

Asked what US strategic interests are in Ukraine, Kerry on Sunday said that it’s a sovereign, independent nation, and “we support that sovereignty and that independence.”

“They have been a responsible new independent member of the global community since the implosion of the Soviet Union. We have European Union and NATO interests that border Ukraine,” Kerry said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

This implies that a Russian move out of Crimea into eastern Ukraine itself would be a dire development in US eyes, as it would probably result in the dissolution of the Ukrainian state into pro-Western and pro-Russian halves. It also recognizes that sitting on Ukraine’s western border is Poland, a full NATO member and fiercely anti-Russian nation that is probably looking with trepidation at the uproar to its east.

In this context, NATO leaders should be drawing up prudent contingency plans for the region, writes retired Adm. James Stavridis, a former alliance chief, in Foreign Policy. That could include sharing intelligence with the Ukrainian government, raising the alert status of the NATO Response Force, and sailing naval forces in to the Black Sea.

“Many will consider any level of NATO involvement provocative and potentially inflammatory. Unfortunately, the stakes are high and the Russians are moving. Sitting idle, without at least looking at options, is a mistake for NATO and would itself constitute a signal to Putin – one that he would welcome,” writes Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

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