Obama’s Ukraine gamble

Since the Ukraine crisis began, Obama administration officials have talked about pushing Russia toward the “offramp” and de-escalation. That’s the best diplomatic outcome, but it will require an unlikely public reversal by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The premise of the administration’s approach is that Putin will decide that he made a mistake by seizing the Crimean region of Ukraine and, as he faces ever-greater costs, will negotiate a face-saving compromise, concluding that Russia’s interests are better served by a return to the status quo.

The exit path, as envisioned by the White House, seeks to address Russian concerns without undermining the new Ukrainian government. To answer Putin’s complaints about the supposed mistreatment of Russian-speakers, international monitors have arrived in Crimea. But Russia must now work with the transitional government in Kiev and support elections to choose a successor to President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled last month. Finally, the Russians must return to their military bases in Crimea.

It’s a lot for Putin to swallow and so far, he has refused. Russian troops remain in control in Crimea, and Moscow appears to back the upcoming Crimean referendum to break away from Ukraine and join Russia. But even Putin, with his ex-KGB man’s bravado, doesn’t appear eager for all-out war in Ukraine.

Obama on Thursday added pressure for Putin to stand down. The White House announced visa restrictions and a structure for targeted sanctions against Russians and their allies who are threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty. Since no individuals or companies are yet named, the sanctions gun is unloaded, for now. The message to Putin was that the further he moves to annex Crimea, the more he risks economic damage to himself and friends, and to Russia itself.

Obama’s bet on Putin’s rational willingness to compromise is a long shot, it must be said. Putin is an autocratic leader with a dangerous nostalgia for Soviet empire. But Obama views him as a “transactional” leader who will make a deal at the right price. By imposing real costs, Obama is backing Putin toward a corner, but also himself: He is now publicly committed to forcing a Russian retreat.

Obama, perhaps stung by conservative criticism that his foreign policy has been weak and vacillating, has in this crisis adopted a strategy of measured escalation. The aim, an administration official explained Thursday morning, is to “calibrate sanctions based on what the Russians do.” The strategy has three legs:

First, the administration seeks to impose “costs” for the Russian intervention; this was essential after Putin’s humiliating rebuff of Obama’s warning last Friday against such action. The harshest sanctions have been levied by the financial markets, but Thursday’s announcement of Treasury and State Department measures adds some teeth. Just 24 hours earlier, the White House wasn’t sure if such additional measures would backfire.

The strategy assumes that for Putin’s Russia, which was so obviously hungry for validation at the Sochi Olympics, the prospect of international diplomatic and financial ostracism is a real penalty.

Second, the U.S. mobilized its NATO allies to prevent further Russian expansion in the region. Pentagon sources say that several dozen measures have already been adopted, including new NATO exercises and U.S. visits. The message is that Putin’s actions are bringing precisely the outcome he least wanted, in which Russia’s neighbors are moving closer to the U.S. and NATO.

Finally, Obama has kept the exit door open, even as he tries to push Putin through. This combination of sanctions and diplomacy helped yield the breakthrough interim nuclear agreement with Iran, and Obama is attempting a similar maneuver.

U.S. officials who still think a deal with Putin is possible point to what a Washington Post headline called his “strange, rambling press conference” on Tuesday. Putin denied Russian troops had invaded (“there is no need for it”), and it’s noteworthy that Russian troops in Crimea haven’t worn identification badges. The ex-spy appears to be styling his Crimean campaign as a covert action, rather than an overt invasion. Perhaps if it never officially happened, it’s easier to back down.

Putin returned again and again during his news conference to the theme of legitimacy. He even said he sympathized with the protesters in Kiev who are “used to seeing one set of thieves being replaced by another.” Putin, in his weird way, wants to appear on the right side of history. But finding a way out of this crisis and maintaining the legitimacy he prizes will require Putin to change course. That’s the uncertain bet Obama is making.

David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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