WASHINGTON — When the Obama administration struck a deal last week with Russia to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine, President Barack Obama described the diplomatic agreement as “a glimmer of hope.”
That glimmer now appears to be all but extinguished as events on the ground in eastern Ukraine take on an increasingly warlike cast.
Obama said Friday that Russia has failed to live up to the agreement brokered on April 17 in Geneva between the U.S., Russia, Ukraine and the European Union. The deal called for all parties to lay down arms, surrender occupied buildings and public squares, and grant amnesty to protesters, among other steps to calm the crisis.
Even as Obama threatened to impose new targeted sanctions against Russia, he admitted that they won’t necessarily solve the problem.
“What we’ve been trying to do is to continually raise the costs for Russia of their actions while still leaving the possibility of them moving in a different direction,” the president said at a press conference Friday in South Korea. “And we’ll continue to keep some arrows in our quiver in the event that we see a further deterioration of the situation over the next several days or weeks.”
The Russian economy already has taken a hit. Standard & Poor’s downgraded Russia’s sovereign debt rating Friday to a notch above junk status. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown little sign of being daunted by sanctions.
“If Russia is determined to occupy parts of eastern Ukraine, then they’re going to move, sanctions or no sanctions,” said Cory Welt, associate director at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University and an adjunct fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank.
The prospect of a Russian invasion loomed Friday as Russia ramped up military drills on the border and Ukraine’s interim government in Kiev announced it would blockade the eastern city of Slovyansk as part of an ongoing “anti-terrorist” operation, which has claimed the lives of five pro-Russian separatists.
Also on Friday, pro-Russian gunmen in Slovyansk allegedly detained members of a special European monitoring mission. In Kramatorsk, another eastern city, separatists reportedly blew up a Ukrainian military helicopter, and local police said seven people were injured by a grenade at a checkpoint near the Black Sea port of Odessa.
The developments sparked fiery rhetoric from both sides and stoked fears that Russia is on the brink of a full-blown armed intervention.
Some 40,000 Russian troops are massed on the border with Ukraine, according to NATO estimates. Ukrainian officials said Friday that any crossing of the border by Russians would be viewed as an invasion.
“Attempts at military conflict in Ukraine will lead to a military conflict in Europe,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in a televised Cabinet meeting translated by Reuters.
“The world has not yet forgotten World War II, but Russia already wants to start World War III,” Yatsenyuk said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, meanwhile, accused the West of wanting to “seize Ukraine” for its own political ambitions “and not the interests of the Ukrainian people.”
If anything, the Geneva accords simply were a pause in the conflict, rather than a true breakthrough, said Heather Conley, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
“This was an attempt to have both parties take a step back, and clearly the events on the ground have a dynamic of their own right now,” she said.
“The Geneva accords were an attempt to de-escalate the crisis,” Conley said. “It was unsuccessful. What is next? … Other than ‘teeing up’ sanctions, it is unclear where we go from here.”
Sanctions don’t appear to be working and a war of words isn’t constructive, said Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert and director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington research and policy center.
“If the geopolitical powers are not fully committed and motivated by fear of war to de-escalate the situation, then almost any small situation on the ground — what we call the spoiler factor — can derail the process,” Rojansky said.
Both sides are trapped in a classic standoff, each with a gun to the other’s head, he said.
“My concern is that the pace here is intense, high-pressure negotiation and heavy rhetoric followed by cynical, ‘Let’s wait and see,’ ” Rojansky said. “That’s not the smart diplomatic pattern.”
The stakes are high: The consequences of failed diplomacy could mean a war with Russia in Europe, he said.
“We are on the cusp of a war that could be the worst the world has seen in 70 years,” Rojansky said.
Putin is not some tin-pot dictator who can be punished and isolated, he said.
“This is a confrontation over issues that we are not going to come to agreement about with a country that we cannot afford to simply depict as a rogue regime,” Rojansky said. “The thing about dealing with the Russians is that actually the world might end.”