Skip to main content
paul koring and joanna slater

Barack Obama’s recent conversations with Vladimir Putin have done little to sway the Russian leader.WHITE HOUSE/Reuters

The Ukraine crisis will be a defining moment for U.S. President Barack Obama, and the coming days and weeks will shape his legacy on the world stage as he attempts to compel a Russian retreat in Ukraine without resorting to the use of force. But his options are few.

After Russian troops quickly and decisively seized Crimea, the Ukraine crisis has a grave new dimension. Western outrage, bluster and shows of solidarity may fall far short of delivering any meaningful Russian rollback.

The rapidity of developments in Ukraine has placed Mr. Obama in a predicament that would be familiar to his predecessors: The biggest crises arrive suddenly and are not the ones any president would have chosen to address.

For Mr. Obama, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who has favoured diplomacy and covert action over direct military confrontation, the situation in Ukraine is a watershed moment. As President, Mr. Obama has been unusually willing to acknowledge the limits of American power. He declined to intervene in Syria's civil war, withdrew from Iraq and has sought to extricate U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But his restraint runs the risk of appearing impotent in the face of naked aggression by Russia against Ukraine.

In Russian President Vladimir Putin, he also faces a counterpart whose brinksmanship and carefully tended image as a man of action could not be more of a contrast to Mr. Obama, who was first elected as the antidote to his predecessor's costly go-it-alone policy of war in Iraq. He is now a President in the final years of his final term, with a deadlocked Congress and a public whose priority is the economy, not foreign policy. But he is already under fire from Republican critics for being soft on Iran, and with midterms looming, some are already complaining he's not talking tough enough to Mr. Putin.

"Every time the President goes on national television and threatens Putin or anyone like Putin, everybody's eyes roll, including mine," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on CNN's State of the Union show Sunday. "We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression."

None of the critics who belittled the President, however, advocate U.S. military intervention. Still, Mr. Obama has to also tread carefully and not make threats he will not or cannot carry through.

He is still smarting from his bellicose stance on Syria, when he threatened air strikes on Moscow's ally Syria after a chemical weapons attack. Mr. Obama could not get Congress behind him, nor any Western ally apart from France. He accepted a breakthrough Russian-brokered deal to destroy Syria's chemical stocks, avoiding military action. But it seems unlikely the President will again float a military option.

The one-time community organizer and law professor finds himself in a Cold War-esque standoff pitted against a former KGB officer. Mr. Putin has moved with speed and determination while the West rushes to catch up: On Friday, as Mr. Obama warned in a sober, three-minute statement that there would be "costs" to violating Ukraine's sovereignty, Russian troops were already moving to secure facilities in Crimea.

So far, in Washington and other Western capitals, the Russian invasion is being loudly denounced as an affront to civilized norms, a violation of international law, but hardly a casus belli. Instead, there's talk of a letter to Russia, not an ultimatum, signed by all 28 NATO countries.

Mr. Obama has spent more than two hours on the phone with Mr. Putin in the past 10 days, the latest a 90-minute call in which he warned darkly of costs and consequences. By then, Russian armoured vehicles and insignia-less troops were already deployed across Crimea. Relations between the two presidents were already chilly, and the conversation apparently did little to sway the Russian leader.

The new reality is Russia now controls the Crimean peninsula. There's little, short of war, that Mr. Obama and his allies can do to roll back that reality. Given strong secessionist sentiment in Crimea, dating to being unhappily grafted onto Ukraine in 1954, the ethnic Russian majority on the peninsula will mostly see it as a welcome return to Mother Russia.

Mr. Obama has made clear that he does not view Russia as a permanent adversary. Just last month, at the summit of North American leaders in Mexico, he said his administration's approach is not to see a "Cold War chessboard in which we're in competition with Russia."

But his standing now depends on finding a path through the current crisis that does not finish with an outright victory for Mr. Putin. His predecessor, George W. Bush, faced a parallel dilemma during the Russian war with Georgia in 2008. Mr. Bush's options for forcing Russia's hand were similarly limited. The episode is now viewed as a secondary incident in the sweep of Mr. Bush's foreign policy. Ukraine is far larger, and Mr. Obama will have no such luxury.

More likely, Crimea will be a refresher course in realpolitik. NATO exists as a mutual defence pact to deter aggression and – if necessary, go to war – but only if one of its members is attacked. Its post-Cold War search for a new role doesn't include war for non-members, and Ukraine is not a member.

As in Kosovo (and Georgia and Libya), treaties and entreaties may also matter little. United Nations Security Council legitimacy for military intervention is useful but hardly necessary. Depending on the crisis, either self-determination or protection of the oppressed can be invoked to justify military intervention. But what really matters is boots on the ground or warplanes overhead.

Snubbing Mr. Putin by boycotting the Paralympics – an echo of the 1980 boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympic Games over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – is under consideration. So is kicking Russia out of the G8, visa bans, refusing to attend the Sochi summit and a host of other diplomatic and economic consequences, some dire, most mainly symbolic.

A pair of U.S. warships in the Black Sea – sent to signal security concerns about Sochi – could approach Crimea, but the era of sending a gunboat to sort out crises is long past. And with Russian gas still heating much of Europe, there are serious practical limits to starting an economic war with Moscow.

And just as Moscow was powerless to stop the U.S.-led air war in 1999 that drove Serbian troops out of Kosovo – despite no Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force – the political reality is that major powers rarely risk conflict over what happens in a rival's sphere of influence.

Moscow was similarly incensed and equally incapable of stopping NATO when it morphed an air-exclusion zone over Libya into Western warplanes acting as the air force for rebels seeking to oust Moammar Ghadafi. But with U.S., Canadian and European strike fighters handily based in Sicily, the reality was Moscow could do very little but vent its fury over real or imagined violations of international law.

So too in Crimea where the view from Moscow is that Western-backed factions toppled Ukraine's democratically elected government, seeking to gain an advantage in the strategically-located country that has – for centuries – been in Moscow's sphere of control.