Washington, March 2: President Barack Obama has warned Russia that “there will be costs” for a military intervention in Ukraine. But the US has few palatable options for imposing such costs, and recent history has shown that when it considers its interests at stake, Russia has been willing to pay the price.
Even before President Vladimir Putin yesterday publicly declared his intent to send Russian troops into the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, Obama and his team were already discussing how to respond.
They talked about cancelling the President’s trip to a summit meeting in Russia in June, shelving a possible trade agreement, kicking Moscow out of G8 or moving American warships to the region.
That is the same menu of actions that was offered to President George W. Bush in 2008, when Russia went to war with Georgia.
Yet the costs imposed at that time proved only marginally effective and short-lived. Russia stopped its advance but nearly six years later has never fully lived up to the terms of the ceasefire it signed. And whatever penalty it paid at the time evidently has not deterred it from again muscling a neighbour.
“The question is: Are those costs big enough to cause Russia not to take advantage of the situation in the Crimea?” said Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan, a retired army officer who served as defence attaché in the US embassy in Moscow.
Obama announced the first direct response after a telephone call with Putin on Saturday as he suspended preparations for the G8 summit meeting in Russia. The White House said: “Russia’s continued violation of international law will lead to greater political and economic isolation.”
Michael McFaul, who just stepped down as Obama’s ambassador to Moscow, said the President should go further to ensure that Russia’s business-minded establishment understands that it would find itself cut off.
Putin has already demonstrated that the cost to Moscow’s international reputation would not stop him. Having just hosted the Winter Olympics, he must have realised he was all but throwing away seven years and $50 billion of effort to polish Russia’s image. He evidently calculated that any diplomatic damage did not outweigh what he sees as a threat to Russia’s historic interest in Ukraine, which was ruled by Moscow until the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Finding powerful levers to influence Putin’s decision-making will be a challenge for Obama and the European allies.
Russia is a tough country to pressure, too formidable even in the post-Soviet age to rattle with stern lectures or shows of military force, and too rich in resources to squeeze economically in the short term.
With a veto on the UN Security Council, it need not worry about the world body. And as the primary source of natural gas to much of Europe, it holds a trump card over many American allies.