WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s penchant for diplomacy and soft power is being tested by the burgeoning crisis in Ukraine, as he seeks to punish Russia for annexing Crimea while preventing a larger conflict should Moscow continue encroaching on its neighbors.
Lengthy phone calls between Obama and Vladimir Putin failed to persuade the Russian president to back off, despite Obama’s efforts to improve U.S.-Russia relations. Secretary of State John Kerry’s last-minute marathon talks with his Russian counterpart also got the U.S. no further.
An initial round of sanctions that targeted Russian government officials were mocked in Moscow, and the administration moved Thursday to expand them — even as Obama insisted that there was a less confrontational option.
“Diplomacy between the United States and Russia continues,” Obama said from the South Lawn of the White House. “We’ve emphasized that Russia still has a different path available — one that de-escalates the situation, and one that involves Russia pursuing a diplomatic solution with the government in Kiev, with the support of the international community.”
Critics, as well as some foreign policy analysts, say Obama’s initial response to Russia needed to be more muscular, not the nuanced approach the president has often preferred in international affairs since he took office in 2009 vowing to wind down a decade of war.
“My concern with the Obama approach is it’s very incremental, very measured,” Barry Pavel, a former National Security Council staffer for both President George W. Bush and Obama, said prior to the Thursday announcement of additional restrictions on Moscow. “He’s not been good at wielding negative tools. He’s better at wielding positive tools.”
Pavel, now vice president of the Atlantic Council, a foreign policy think tank, and director of its Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, pointed to the 3-year-old conflict in Syria, where Obama has been reluctant to intervene. Obama has insisted that Syrian President Bashar Assad must go, Pavel said, “but never gave Assad a single negative incentive, never took a single negative action.”
Similarly, the initial sanctions against Russia, Pavel said, were limited enough that he feared Putin “must be thinking, ‘Wow, they really are as wimpy as I thought they were.’ I would have taken sanctions and cranked them up to the point where they immediately cause Putin and his core accomplices to feel enormous economic and other pain.”
The White House all week threatened to escalate the sanctions. The naming of influential Russians in Putin’s inner circle Thursday suggests a marked ratcheting-up in Obama’s willingness to take a “proactive and indeed forceful line,” said Michael Geary, a European studies fellow at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan global policy institution.
“You can see an interesting contrast between mentioning red lines with Syria and the piecemeal approach he’s adopting now with Russia,” Geary said of Obama. “Step by step, (he’s) slowly squeezing some very influential Russians.”
Obama, who campaigned against Bush’s launching of the war in Iraq a decade ago, has been criticized for taking too long to make up his mind on foreign policy threats, including the Syrian civil war. But some analysts say the former law school professor’s deliberations may be more appropriate to the moment.
“He’s got to be careful and determined and not over-promise that he can put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” said Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he oversees research on Russia in Washington and Moscow. “There’s a sense we’re hostage to provocations, and small-scale actors could trigger further worsening of this crisis, and that’s a place no president wants to be.”
Obama’s biggest hurdle is not of his making, Weiss said. Given the amount of trade it does with Russia, Europe has been reluctant to embrace sanctions against Russia that would bite too deeply, he said.
“The Europeans have $400 billion or more at stake,” Weiss said. “These are not nickel-and-dime issues. They go to the heart of their economic prosperity.”
That makes it important for the U.S. to proceed in a careful way so it doesn’t expose differences and a lack of unity about how to respond, Weiss said.
Obama, who leaves this weekend for a trip to Europe likely to be dominated by worries about Ukraine, has invited the leaders of the G-7 nations — called the G-8 when the group includes Russia — to meet on the sidelines of a previously arranged meeting on nuclear security at the Hague.
That meeting could help stiffen European resolve to come down harder on Russia.
“I don’t want to suggest there any magic bullets, but I also think we shouldn’t minimize the importance of these meetings,” said Lee Feinstein, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a nonprofit group that support trans-Atlantic cooperation. He is also a former U.S. ambassador to Poland and foreign policy adviser to the Obama administration.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has said that the administration’s stance on Syria emboldened Putin, has called on Obama to send military aid to the Ukrainian government, as it has requested.
Obama flatly ruled out military intervention in Ukraine in a television interview this week, saying that for the U.S. to engage Russia militarily “would not be appropriate and wouldn’t be good for Ukraine, either.”
That’s largely in line with public opinion. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that Americans were opposed to U.S. involvement in Ukraine by nearly 2-to-1.
The national survey, conducted March 6-9, found more than half — 56 percent — did not want the U.S. to get “too involved” in Ukraine. Twenty-nine percent wanted the U.S. to take a “firm stand,” but most of that group said the U.S. should consider only political and economic options.
The poll also found more people disapprove — 44 percent — than approve — 30 percent — of the way the administration is handling the situation. More than a quarter — 26 percent — had no opinion.
Obama is open to criticism “mainly because there’s so little he can do in Crimea on the ground that his response invariably looks not aggressive enough to Republicans,” said William Pomeranz, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies.
U.S. officials are certainly trying to map out the “practical question of how does one support Ukraine without provoking Russia to expand” and invade more territory, he said.
“They’re moving in increments in response to what Russia is doing, but President Obama also has the responsibility of making sure that this doesn’t escalate into a bigger war,” Pomeranz said, “and no other politician has that responsibility to consider when they’re making recommendations.”