Obama, who has avoided entanglement in global crises where
possible and focused on domestic affairs, now finds himself in the
midst of the most dangerous East-West standoff since the end of the
U.S. officials have said for months they did not want Ukraine's
political crisis to turn into a Washington-Moscow tug of war. But on
Saturday, a week after Ukraine's Russian-backed president was ousted
in a tide of popular anger, Obama's foreign policy aides rushed to
craft a response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's blunt moves.
Putin's parliament gave him the authority to invade Ukraine, which
he regards as part of Russia's sphere of influence and where his
troops have apparently already seized the Crimea peninsula.
In what appeared to be a tough 90-minute phone call with Putin on
Saturday, Obama condemned Russia's military intervention in Ukraine
and warned that it could face further political and economic
isolation, the White House said. Obama told the Russian leader that
Washington was suspending participation in meetings to prepare for
this summer's G-8 meetings in Sochi, Russia.
But Putin had brushed aside Obama's threat on Friday that "there
will be costs" for any use of force in Ukraine. The Russian leader,
whom Obama once hoped to make a partner, now seems a determined
He appears to be calculating that Obama's willingness to go to the
mat over Ukraine, a country few Americans know much about, does not
match Russia's readiness to assert itself over a former Soviet
republic with which it has close historic ties and economic
Crimea, part of Russia until 1954, is Ukraine's only region with a
majority ethnic Russian population, and Russia has a military
presence already with the headquarters of its Black Sea Fleet.
"Even though the president doesn't want to view this as a Cold War
scenario, Vladimir Putin does," U.S. Senator John McCain, an Arizona
Republican and a frequent critic of Obama's foreign policy, told
Reuters. "The fact that the United States has appeared weak in the
world has encouraged him."
The Obama administration appears to have few other ready options to
Current and former U.S. officials insist that Washington and its
European allies, while they have ruled out the use of military
force, can still exert pressure on Moscow by demonstrating that it
has a lot to lose if it continues on its current course. That could
the include the boost to its image from hosting February's Winter
"Putin spent allegedly $50 billion to show off the 'New Russia' at
the Sochi Olympics," said Michael McFaul, who left his post as U.S.
ambassador to Moscow earlier this week. "He has to understand that
all he has hoped for will be swept away if indeed there's a genuine
The escalating crisis also raises questions about whether the White
House was quick enough to recognize the seriousness of the Ukraine
issue and to give it adequate attention.
U.S. officials and other sources said that the State Department,
particularly the hard-charging assistant secretary of state for
Europe, Victoria Nuland, had for months been raising alarms about
Russia's more aggressive posture toward former Soviet states, and
Ukraine in particular.
Washington's engagement accelerated after a November 2013 European
summit at which Ukraine - along with Armenia - declined under heavy
Russian pressure to sign association agreements with the European
"That's when you saw the Americans stepping up," said Damon Wilson,
executive vice president of the Washington-based Atlantic Council,
and a former adviser on Europe to President George W. Bush.
Nuland, he said, "created U.S. policy really out of very little at
McFaul said the Ukraine crisis was "on our radar at the highest
levels" from the outset last fall and he personally acted as a
bridge between the White House and State Department.
"It's important to understand the limitation of what we can and
can't do, but to say we weren't paying attention is incorrect," the
former ambassador, a longtime Obama confidant, told Reuters by
telephone late on Friday.
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Wilson praised Obama's sharper warnings to Russia on Friday. Now, he
said, the United States will have to decide how deeply broader ties
with Russia - already strained by differences over the Syrian civil
war - have been harmed. "At what point does this disagreement become
so significant that it bleeds over into other issues?"
SEVERE CRISIS, FEW OPTIONS
James Collins, U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 1997-2001, said that
compared with the last major crisis with Russia, its 2008 war with
Georgia, "this could be even more severe in terms of poisoning
Russia's relations with the Europeans and the United States."
Obama, who decided to step in front of the cameras at the White
House on Friday after signs of heightened Russian military activity
in Crimea, was vague in his threat of the consequences.
A senior administration official said options being considered
included skipping the Sochi G8 summit in June and rejecting Russian
overtures for deeper trade and commercial ties. In a statement on
Saturday after Obama's phone call with Putin, the White House warned
that Russia risked "greater political and economic isolation."
While it is too early to contemplate economic sanctions, "there will
be a time and a place for punitive action against Russia if it in
fact follows through on what appears to be happening on the ground
in Crimea," McFaul said.
For the moment, Washington is still talking to Moscow at high
levels. In addition to the Obama-Putin call, U.S. Defense Secretary
Chuck Hagel spoke on Saturday with his Russian counterpart, the
Pentagon said, adding Hagel told Sergei Shoigu that Moscow's
military intervention risked an escalation that would threaten
European and international security.
Asked whether some U.S. military units had been on alert over
turmoil in Crimea, a U.S. official said there was no change in the
U.S. military's stance and the U.S. focus was on diplomatic options.
Obama's national security team met to discuss policy options on
Saturday, a senior Obama administration official said.
AID TO UKRAINE
Along with troops, Putin has made clear he is prepared to pour money
into Ukraine to pull it closer to Russia's orbit.
The European Union, United States and International Monetary Fund
are all considering monetary support to Ukraine's new government,
with promises of much larger IMF help if Ukraine implements economic
reforms after its elections in May.
There is concern in Washington whether funds will be delivered fast
enough to prop up Ukraine's troubled economy. Pressure is building
on Capitol Hill to accelerate U.S. aid.
Obama also finds himself without a U.S. ambassador in Moscow at a
critical juncture, although the Obama administration appears to be
moving to rectify that.
Though McFaul's departure had been scheduled for months, Obama's
national security adviser, Susan Rice, and the State Department only
recently agreed on a candidate to succeed him, officials said, a
sign that an announcement could come soon.
Speculation in Washington is that those under consideration include
three former U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine, John Tefft, Steven Pifer
and Carlos Pascual.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Steve Holland and Arshad
Mohammed; Editing by Frances Kerry)
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