U.S. goal in Crimea: slow down the Ukraine crisis

NEW YORK — With Russia sending soldiers to Ukraine, President Barack Obama and America’s European allies have a number of options to weigh, but the first thing is to try to slow down this quickly escalating military crisis while assisting the new Ukrainian government.

The State Department booked Secretary of State John Kerry on the three network Sunday shows — “This Week” on ABC, “Face The Nation” on CBS and “Meet the Press” on NBC — to discuss the Russian aggression in Ukraine.

This comes as Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Monday and unveils his fiscal 2015 budget Tuesday. Obama also has the challenge, a former Obama national security official told me, to not let this be framed as a U.S. vs Russia showdown. “It would be outrageous for other countries to say, ‘Let’s leave it to the Americans.’ ”

On Saturday, Obama spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin for 90 minutes telling him, according to the White House, that “Russia’s clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity … is a breach of international law.”

Russian troops moved to Ukraine a day after Obama warned Russia to pull back its forces.

Not only was Putin not deterred by Obama’s threat that “there will be costs” in the wake of the military action — but Russian lawmakers on Saturday officially approved the use of military force in Ukraine.

The deployment of soldiers to Crimea — an ethnic Russian section of Ukraine with a Russian naval base and the potential of more military action — puts enormous pressure on the Ukraine government in Kiev formed last month after the outster of President Viktor Yanukovych.

Obama’s national security team met at the White House on Saturday to discuss potential moves, a White House official said. At the United Nations, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appealed to Russia to de-escalate.

Putin is “testing the waters to see if he can get away with it,” Damon Wilson, the executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, a Washington global affairs think tank, told me Saturday.

With events extremely fluid, the Obama administration has to move on several fronts Wilson said, to deter further military action, support the new Ukraine government, reassure U.S. allies and to spell out to Russia what those costs will be.

So far “it is not clear what we are putting on the table,” Wilson said.

A week ago, the world was watching the conclusion of a peaceful Winter Olympics in Sochi. Now there is worry that Putin will provoke a new Cold War — or worse.

Obama has domestic concerns in deciding his next move in this election year; if it is something that needs congressional approval, he will have a tough time winning a vote.

Obama was facing an uphill fight in getting congressional approval for a military intervention in Syria and is at odds with members of his own party on whether to impose more sanctions on Iran as the U.S. and allies try to thwart its nuclear ambitions.

The U.S. needs Russian help on Syria and Iran, complicating the Ukraine situation for Obama. What is off the table is unilateral U.S. military action.

Most of the ways to isolate and pressure Russia call for international collaborations:

  • Obama told Putin on Saturday the U.S. is suspending its participation in prep meetings for the June G-8 meeting of industrial nations in Sochi. Canada is also suspending G-8 prep. The next step would be a boycott of the meeting. With the support of the international community, this can be taken further: Russia could be expelled from the G-8. And there is potentially more on the economic front: Russia could be kept out of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development; the World Trade Organization could impose sanctions.
  • NATO has a role. Russia’s military move threatens the security of NATO member Poland and the Baltic nations. Those nations bordering Ukraine are vulnerable; NATO forces could be deployed to those front lines.
  • Obama on Saturday also consulted with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and French President Francois Hollande and the three nations agreed to send aid to the new Ukraine government. “The leaders also pledged to work together on a package of support and assistance to help Ukraine as it pursues reforms and stabilizes its economy,” the White House said. That humanitarian assistance could be delivered with military aircraft and other assets to deter Russia from making more advances.
  • The U.S. and allies will need to persuade the new government in Kiev not to be provocative — and not to take the Russian bait.
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