President Obama is facing the worst crisis of his second term in Ukraine, with few realistic options available for the United States to defuse the situation.
The events of the past 24 hours show that the crisis could become a major setback for Obama and the U.S. government. It has already unleashed criticism from conservatives and other foreign policy hawks that Obama's weakness on foreign policy is partly responsible for the mess and has left him with no credible way to push back against Russian leader Vladimir Putin for Russia's incursion into Ukraine.
"Putin is playing chess and I think we're playing marbles," said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Rogers told Fox News that the Russians have been "running circles around us" in negotiations on ending the Syrian civil war, on the future of missile defense and other issues. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told CNN, "We have a weak and indecisive president" and that "invites aggression."
Obama is pushing back as best he can. His administration is working with allies to develop economic penalties against Russia if the incursion continues and provide assistance to an independent government in Ukraine. The United States and its allies are also considering a boycott of the Group of Eight international summit meeting in Russia this June if the situation doesn't improve. And Russia could be expelled from the G-8, U.S. officials said.
The leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, the president of the European Council and the president of the European Commission issued a joint statement Sunday condemning "the Russian Federation's clear violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, in contravention of Russia's obligations under the UN Charter and its 1997 basing agreement with Ukraine." The seven national leaders added that they have "decided for the time being to suspend our participation in activities associated with the preparation of the scheduled G-8 summit in Sochi (Russia) in June, until the environment comes back where the G-8 is able to have meaningful discussion."
Obama talked by phone for 90 minutes with Putin on Saturday. The president "made absolutely clear" that a Russian invasion of Ukraine "is unacceptable, and there will be serious repercussions if this stands," Secretary of State John Kerry told CBS.
But Putin didn't back off, and his spokesman said "Russia retains the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population" in Ukraine. Russia on Sunday sent more forces to the Crimean Peninsula, a largely Russian-speaking area of Ukraine, The Washington Post reported.
Russia has many cards to play and there are factors that will probably limit a Western response. Russia provides large amounts of natural gas to Europe, and this economic link is likely to mute European reaction against Moscow. The Obama administration also needs Russian cooperation in Iran and Syria, which may limit the U.S. response. And Russian officials feel they have little to lose because the West and the United States have demonstrated no desire for a sustained confrontation. Military action by the United States and the West is considered by experts and Obama advisers as almost impossible to conceive, with Americans already war-weary after costly and lengthy conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ukraine was a satellite state of the Soviet Union until the Soviet empire broke up in 1991. A Ukrainian regime that was allied with Moscow was recently deposed, triggering the current crisis.