Business, Finance & Economics

These are the 8 options Obama has for the conflict in Ukraine

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President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the situation in Ukraine, March 1.

Credit:

The White House

BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — Over the past few days, events in Ukraine’s autonomous region of Crimea have been unfolding with agonizing predictability. Moscow has sent some 6,000 soldiers into the Black Sea peninsula, and Russia now has what US officials are calling “complete operational control” of the area.

Ukraine is mobilizing its troops, and Washington is rolling out sanctions against Russia and halting cooperation with the Russian military.

US President Barack Obama has called Russia’s actions “a breach of international law,” while Secretary of State John Kerry deemed them a “brazen act of aggression.”

Kerry arrived in Kyiv Tuesday with a $1-billion aid package to shore up the new and beleaguered government.

Read more: Follow GlobalPost's live blog for Ukraine updates

Russia’s Foreign Ministry, for its part, condemned Kerry’s “unacceptable threats” and insisted it has an obligation to take action in Ukraine in the wake of a seizure of power by “radical extremists.”

This is Russia’s view of recent events in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, where protests against Moscow-leaning president Viktor Yanukovych resulted in a change of government last week.

Among other measures designed to slight the Kremlin, the United States has pulled its presidential delegation to the Winter Paralympic Games, which open this week in Sochi. That move drew some acerbic tweeting.

Moscow is also on a tear: Russia’s state television canceled coverage of Sunday's Academy Awards, which was set to air live in the early hours of Monday morning there.

But amid all the bluster, there are few viable options. Crimea has long been a battleground pitting Russia against a European alliance, with dismal results.

As historian Shepard Clough put it, the 1853-56 Crimean War started with “fatal blundering in slow-motion by inept statesmen.”

No one wants a replay of that conflict, but a toxic mix of hubris and miscalculation just might precipitate a crisis that could easily spin out of control.

GlobalPost primer: Your starter kit for understanding the chaos unfolding in Crimea

The Obama administration is under pressure from allies and adversaries alike, with suggestions ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The president has suggested there will be “a whole series of steps — economic, diplomatic — that will isolate Russia and will have a negative impact on Russia's economy and its status in the world." But so far he has not been overly specific about what those steps will be.

Here are the eight best and worst options in front of the US president:

 

1. Stare and do nothing


(The White House/Getty Images)

There’s almost nothing Washington can do to stop Moscow from taking Crimea, and very little that will stop Ukraine from falling into Moscow’s orbit. So perhaps the best option is, as journalist and old Moscow hand Jonathan Steele puts it, to “calm down and back off,” rather than expose the West’s impotence in the face of Russian ambition and Ukrainian realpolitik.

While this might be wise as a means of defusing the crisis, it looks like an outright admission of weakness, something on which Obama’s critics have already pounced. With midterm elections coming up this year, inaction could spell political suicide for the White House team.

More from GlobalPost: Watch as these Ukrainian soldiers refuse to leave Crimea in face of attack

 

2. Boycott the Sochi G8


A digital image of Russia's Sochi Olympic Skating Center. (Handout/Getty Images)

This would cause a pinprick, perhaps. All the Group of Eight powers except for Russia — the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan — said Sunday they would pull out of summit preparation activities. Moscow would undoubtedly be miffed if seven out of the eight wealthiest countries in the world were to actually skip this summer’s summit.

Sunday's announcement was greeted with equanimity by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. "It's not a minus for Russia,” he told the Guardian. “It will be a minus for the G8."

Stand by for news from the G1 summit this June.

 

3. Institute a travel ban on Russian leaders


Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images)

This is an option Washington’s EU allies are discussing, and one that might actually sting. Russia’s wildly wealthy oligarchs are a constant presence in London’s swankiest nightclubs and on the most exclusive beaches of the Cote d’Azur. But while tourists might welcome a decrease in the free-spending Russian-speaking population in Europe’s playgrounds, it is hardly going to bring Vladimir Putin to his knees.

Putin is determined to hold on to Ukraine, and a few disgruntled businessmen are not likely to change his mind. If they become too annoying, he can always just put them in jail. It’s been done before — think of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

 

4. Kick Russia out of the G8


Oxfam campaigners wearing masks depicting the leaders of the G8 countries pose on a golf course in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland in June 2013. (Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images)

A reversion to the G7 might cause dyspepsia in Moscow, but it would also be uncomfortable for Europe. Moscow’s integration into Europe’s economy has made many countries, especially Germany, dependent on Russia for its energy supplies. According to Bloomberg, 34 percent of Europe’s energy imports comes from Moscow — through Ukraine. Ejecting Russia from the club would hurt Moscow and entail disruption in some of Europe’s economic giants. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is pushing for mediation and a “fact-finding mission” rather than immediate punitive measures.

 

5. Sanctions


The Nord Stream pipeline in Lubmin, Germany runs through the Baltic Sea and supplies Europe with natural gas from Russia. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Imposing trade sanctions or freezing the assets of Kremlin-connected businessmen may also be on the table. But these are also likely to run into problems with the allies. The UK says it will not reduce trade with Russia or close London's financial center to Russians, the BBC reported. Germany is also quite leery of sanctions. “Economic sanctions against Russia would damage Germany itself. Sanctions are always bad for Germany as an export-driven nation,” a senior lawmaker told The Wall Street Journal. Without a united front with its allies, Washington is unlikely to be able to cause Russia any measurable economic distress.

 

6. Buy Ukraine


Shoppers in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Getty Images)

The European Union and Washington could try to pump enough money into Ukraine’s fragile economy to pry it loose from the Kremlin’s grip. This might work eventually, but it wouldn’t be cheap: When ousted Ukrainian President Yanukovych was faced with a choice between Moscow and the West last year, he picked the Kremlin’s $15-billion economic rescue package over Europe’s less tangible benefits.

Kyiv might welcome talk of closer cooperation with Europe, but not unless it comes with a generous gift. Given the cash-strapped state of the world’s economy, this is not likely to be a popular move in Washington, London, Bonn or Paris.

 

7. Military posturing


Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel inspected a military honor guard during a welcoming ceremony in Warsaw on Jan. 30, 2014. (JANEK SKARZYNSKI/Getty Images)

Few are ready for another Charge of the Light Brigade in Crimea. Ukraine in general is far from the thoughts of the war-weary population in the United States, and any move that would bring the EU into direct conflict with Russia is not likely to get any traction in Europe.

“It’s very, very hard to see anybody in the US or NATO who is eager to go to war over Crimea,” Steven Pifer, who served as US ambassador to Ukraine under President Bill Clinton, told Politico.

The US has suspended defense cooperation with Russia over the situation. Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby issued a statement Monday indicating that "exercises, bilateral meetings, port visits and planning conferences” are now on hold.

"We have, in light of recent events in Ukraine, put on hold all military-to-military engagements between the United States and Russia," read the statement.

The resistance even to mentioning a military option is fierce in the US, and, unusually, the issue cuts across the partisan divide.

But a so-called “soft military” response is a possibility, albeit a troubling one.

Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Marco Rubio (R- Florida) have both raised the possibility of accelerating entry into NATO for the Republic of Georgia, which saw military clashes with Russia in 2008 over its separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The approach of the North Atlantic military alliance to its borders is not likely to make Russia more amenable, however. As Professor Stephen Cohen of Princeton has pointed out, it is the specter of NATO expansion that has tipped Putin over the edge.

The two senators, along with colleague John McCain (R-Arizona) are also in favor of reviving an anti-ballistic missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic — a plan scrapped by Obama in earlier and friendlier times.

Another option might be to accede to requests for a beefed-up NATO presence in countries that neighbor Ukraine. Poland, for one, has called for NATO consultations, saying it feels “threatened” by Moscow’s actions.

Of course, the more variables there are in the equation, the greater the chances for miscalculation and a possible catastrophe.

 

8. Compromise


Russia's President Vladimir Putin and US Secretary of State John Kerry talk before a "family photo" for leaders at a 2013 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Indonesia. (Mast Irham/AFPGetty Images)

No one will start a war over Ukraine on purpose. That’s the good news. Some sort of compromise may still be reached, where Washington and its allies recognize the de facto annexation of Crimea, but insist on a referendum to make it official. This plebiscite is already on the table, in fact. Crimea’s new pro-Russian leaders this weekend moved the vote up to March 30.

In return, Russia could back down from outright invasion of eastern Ukraine. Washington saves a bit of face, Moscow gets what it wants, mostly, and the mayhem for Ukraine is at least postponed.

There should be a good chance of finding a compromise, according to Georgetown University professor Charles King. The alternative is simply too frightening.

“Even in the midst of a standoff, Russia and the West have a clear common interest,” he wrote in The New York Times on Saturday “forestalling a civil war in the heart of Europe.”

 

 

More from GlobalPost: What Putin really wants with Crimea