[Updated 9:30 p.m. ET] President Obama appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin late Thursday, during a personal phone call, to agree to direct talks with Ukraine aimed at resolving, through diplomacy rather than military confrontation, Russia's concerns about the future direction of the Ukrainian government and of the rights of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine.
Thursday's talk, at least the second between the two leaders since Russia moved military forces into Ukraine's Crimea region nearly a week ago, signals that diplomatic efforts may be making headway. It came just hours after Mr. Obama announced that the US would expand visa bans affecting Russians and that he had issued an executive order authorizing financial sanctions on individuals and groups “responsible for activities undermining democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine.”
In recounting the hour-long Obama-Putin conversation, the White House said: "President Obama indicated that there is a way to resolve the situation diplomatically, which addresses the interests of Russia, the people of Ukraine, and the international community."
Obama's proposal also called upon Mr. Putin to pull his troops back to preexisting Russian bases in Crimea, the White House said. Its other key components: putting international monitors on the ground to protect the rights of all Ukrainian citizens, and supporting elections in May to form a new Ukrainian government.
It is not immediately clear how Putin received the US proposal, and the Kremlin said only that the US and Russia should not allow one issue to derail the wide range of bilateral relations between them. Putin's own plan has appeared to be to hold control in Crimea until the region holds a referendum on whether to break away from Ukraine and join Russia.
For Obama, the strategy appears to be to show a bit of "stick" even as he offers "carrots" intended to address Putin's concerns about the pro-West tilt in Ukraine that toppled Moscow's ally, Viktor Yanukovych.
Earlier Thursday, Obama announced moves that pave the way for asset freezes against certain Russians and Ukrainians, to make clearer what the president meant when he pledged that Russia would face “costs” for its military occupation of Crimea. Senior administration officials described the executive order as the first step in an action plan to “calibrate and escalate” according to Russia's actions.
Amid positioning on both sides, Obama nonetheless faced a stark reality: Perhaps nothing he can do will compel Russia to reverse an action – violation of another country’s sovereignty – that he has said cannot be allowed to stand.
“In 2014 we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders,” Obama said at the White House Thursday.
Obama's bind became tighter and more complex Thursday, when Crimea's parliament voted to leave Ukraine to join Russia, and called for a snap referendum in 10 days to confirm the secession. At the same time, Russia’s Duma initiated a process for receiving Crimea as part of Russia.
Before his talk with Putin, Obama dismissed the legality of a Crimea referendum, saying it would “violate the Ukrainian constitution and violate international law.”
Any move by Crimea to secede from Ukraine would not be recognized by the international community, senior administration officials say. As for a referendum, they say it would not be legitimate without the cooperation of the Ukrainian government in Kiev.
Obama’s focus on stopping a country getting away with the invasion and occupation of a sovereign neighbor is clear in Thursday’s executive order as well. The order authorizes sanctions on individuals deemed to have violated the “sovereignty or territorial integrity” of Ukraine and its government in Kiev.
The White House got quick backing from Congress, with the House Foreign Affairs Committee approving a resolution calling for financial and trade sanctions against Russia. The full House also voted to move forward on a $1 billion loan guarantee package for Ukraine.
Obama may be right that the invasion of one country by another is not condoned under international law. But the complicating factor in the Ukraine case, many international relations experts note, is that the invading power is Russia: a veto-wielding member of the United Nations Security Council, a nuclear power, and a former empire that until 1954 did include Crimea as part of its territory.
Moreover, Russia does appear to have the people of Crimea on its side.
These complications help explain why the Obama administration and in particular Secretary of State John Kerry continue to press for a diplomatic solution.
Speaking Thursday in Rome after a day of meetings – including with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – Secretary Kerry said the international community could not stand by and watch the violation of a sovereign country’s territorial integrity.
“We cannot allow Russia or any country to defy international law with impunity,” Kerry said. “Crimea is part of Ukraine, Crimea is Ukraine,” he said. “We support the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
At the same time, he said his efforts are focused on finding a solution to the crisis that respects Ukraine’s integrity while addressing Russia’s “legitimate concerns,” including the rights and safety of Crimea’s majority ethnic Russian population.
“We believe Russia has the opportunity now to make the right choices in order to de-escalate” the Ukraine conflict, Kerry said. He said Mr. Lavrov would take to Russian President Vladimir Putin “suggestions” for a “way forward to get to the negotiating table.”
That assumes, of course, that Mr. Putin is willing to consider sitting down at the table with representatives of Ukraine’s interim government – a government that Moscow does not recognize as legitimate.
But foreign policy analysts who suspect Putin’s goal all along has been to reclaim Crimea for Russia say he may prefer to wait for the people of Crimea to vote overwhelmingly to join Russia.
That would seem to guarantee that the US would move beyond visa bans to designate individuals under the sanctions it put in place Thursday, but it may be a price Putin is willing to pay.