PRESSURE RISING AS OBAMA WORKS TO REIN IN RUSSIA
|As Russia dispatched more forces and tightened its grip on the Crimean Peninsula on Sunday, President Obama embarked on a strategy intended to isolate Moscow and prevent it from seizing more Ukrainian territory even as he was pressured at home to respond more forcefully, writes nytimes.com. |
Working the telephone from the Oval Office, Mr. Obama rallied allies, agreed to send Secretary of State John Kerry to Kiev and approved a series of diplomatic and economic moves intended to "make it hurt,” as one administration official put it. But the president found himself besieged by advice to take more assertive action.
"Create a democratic noose around Putin’s Russia,” urged Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. "Revisit the missile defense shield,” suggested Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida. "Cancel Sochi,” argued Representative Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who leads the Intelligence Committee, referring to the Group of 8 summit meeting to be hosted by President Vladimir V. Putin. Kick "him out of the G-8” altogether, said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip.
The Russian occupation of Crimea has challenged Mr. Obama as has no other international crisis, and at its heart, the advice seemed to pose the same question: Is Mr. Obama tough enough to take on the former K.G.B. colonel in the Kremlin? It is no easy task. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told Mr. Obama by telephone on Sunday that after speaking with Mr. Putin she was not sure he was in touch with reality, people briefed on the call said. "In another world,” she said.
That makes for a crisis significantly different from others on Mr. Obama’s watch. On Syria, Iran, Libya and Egypt, the political factions in Washington have been as torn as the president over the proper balance of firmness and flexibility. But as an old nuclear-armed adversary returns to Cold War form, the consequences seem greater, the challenges more daunting and the voices more unified.
"It’s the most important, most difficult foreign-policy test of his presidency,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat who became under secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration. "The stakes are very high for the president because he is the NATO leader. There’s no one in Europe who can approach him in power. He’s going to have to lead.”
Mr. Obama came to office with little foreign-policy experience and has been repeatedly tested by a new world in which the main threats are Islamic extremism and civil war. While increasing drone strikes and initially building up forces in Afghanistan, he has made it his mission to pull out of two long wars and keep out of any new ones.
But the limits of his influence have been driven home in recent weeks, with Syria pressing its war against rebels and Afghanistan refusing to sign an agreement allowing residual American forces. Now the Crimea crisis has presented Mr. Obama with an elemental threat reminiscent of the one that confronted his predecessors for four decades — a geopolitical struggle in the middle of Europe. First, the pro-Russian government in Kiev, now deposed, defied his warnings not to shoot protesters, and now Mr. Putin has ignored his admonitions to stay out of Ukraine.
Caught off guard, Mr. Obama is left to play catch-up. With thousands of reinforcements arriving Sunday to join what American officials estimated were 6,000 Russian troops, Mr. Putin effectively severed the peninsula, with its largely Russian-speaking population, from the rest of Ukraine.
"Russian forces now have complete operational control of the Crimean peninsula,” a senior administration official said on the condition of anonymity.
No significant political leaders in Washington urged a military response, but many wanted Mr. Obama to go further than he has so far. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, has already devised language to serve as the basis for possible bipartisan legislation outlining a forceful response, including sanctions against Russia and economic support for Ukraine.
The president has spoken out against Mr. Putin’s actions and termed them a "breach of international law.” But he has left the harshest condemnations to Mr. Kerry, who on Sunday called them a "brazen act of aggression” and "a stunning willful choice by President Putin,” accusing him of "weakness” and "desperation.”
In addition to Ms. Merkel, Mr. Obama spoke with his counterparts from Britain and Poland on Sunday and won agreement from all the other G-8 countries to suspend preparations for the Sochi meeting and find ways to shore up the economically fragile Ukrainian government. The administration also canceled a trade mission to Moscow and a Russian trip to Washington to discuss energy while vowing to also scrap a naval-cooperation meeting with Russia.
In television interviews, Mr. Kerry suggested that the United States might impose sanctions, boycott the Sochi meeting in June and expel Russia from the G-8. Germany, however, publicly expressed opposition to expulsion, an ominous sign for Mr. Obama since any meaningful pressure would need support from Berlin.
But Mr. Obama offered Russia what aides called an "offramp,” a face-saving way out of the crisis, by proposing that European observers take the place of Russian forces in Crimea to guard against the supposed threats to the Russian-speaking population cited by the Kremlin as justification for its intervention.
Mr. Obama’s aides said that they saw no evidence of such threats and considered the claim a bogus pretext, and that they wanted to call Mr. Putin’s bluff. Privately, they said they did not expect Mr. Putin to accept, and they conceded that Mr. Obama probably could not reverse the occupation of Crimea in the short term. They said they were focusing on blocking any further Russian move into eastern Ukraine that would split the country in half.
Some regional specialists said Mr. Obama should ignore the talk-tough chorus and focus instead on defusing a crisis that could get much worse. Andrew Weiss, a national security aide to President Bill Clinton, said the Obama administration should be trying to keep Ukraine and Russia from open war. "For us to just talk about how tough we are, we may score some points but lose the war here,” Mr. Weiss said.
The crisis has trained a harsh spotlight on Mr. Obama’s foreign policy, with critics asserting that he has been too passive.
Mr. Corker traced the origins of Mr. Putin’s brash invasion to September when, in the face of bipartisan opposition in Congress, Mr. Obama pulled back from plans to conduct an airstrike on Syria in retaliation for a chemical-weapons attack on civilians. Instead, he accepted a Russian offer to work jointly to remove the chemical weapons.
"Ever since the administration threw themselves into the arms of Russia in Syria to keep from carrying out what they said they would carry out, I think, he saw weakness,” Mr. Corker said of Mr. Putin. "These are the consequences.”
Of course, had Mr. Obama proceeded with an attack, he would have paid a different price for ignoring the will of Congress and the grave misgivings of an American public weary of war. Republicans who opposed confrontation in Syria insist this is different.
Mr. Rubio, who opposed authorizing force in Syria, agreed that that conflict had serious ramifications for American interests. But he said the showdown in Crimea was about freedom itself and the hard-fought American victory over totalitarianism in the Cold War. In that sense, even Republicans who opposed Mr. Obama in Syria were pushing for a hard line against Mr. Putin.
"The very credibility of the post-Cold War world and borders is at stake here,” Mr. Rubio said in an interview.
Obama aides reject the notion that he has underestimated Mr. Putin. From the beginning, they said, he had a cold-eyed assessment of the possibilities and limitations of engagement with Mr. Putin. And they noted that neither President Bush’s reputation for toughness nor his courtship of Mr. Putin stopped Russia from going to war in 2008 with another neighbor, the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
While Mr. Obama has not gone as far as many in Washington want him to go, the president has been less focused on immediate actions than on making sure he and America’s traditional allies are on the same page. Working from the Oval Office over the weekend, wearing jeans and a scowl, he called several of his G-8 counterparts to "make sure everybody’s in lock step with what we’re doing and saying,” according to a top aide.
Administration officials said Mr. Putin had miscalculated and would pay a cost regardless of what the United States did, pointing to the impact on Russia’s currency and markets. "What we see here are distinctly 19th- and 20th-century decisions made by President Putin to address problems,” one of the officials said. "What he needs to understand is that in terms of his economy, he lives in the 21st-century world, an interdependent world.”
|815 reads | 03.03.2014|