A week before Crimea votes on whether to secede from Ukraine, Russian forces Sunday ramped up their presence in the strategic region while White House officials clung to hope for a diplomatic resolution.
Russian forces reportedly seized a Ukrainian border post and trapped about 30 personnel inside, the latest escalation in a tense standoff that threatens to break Ukraine in two and has placed the U.S. and Russia on opposite sides of a conflict that echoes back to the Cold War.
Republican lawmakers and some former Obama administration officials argue that the U.S. tack of economic sanctions, visa revocations and similar steps won’t deter Russian President Vladimir Putin, but the White House believes there is still a way to resolve the crisis.
The administration announced Sunday that Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk will travel to Washington on Wednesday and meet with President Obama, an attempt to add legitimacy to the troubled nation’s new leadership.
By contrast, administration officials said any Crimean secession vote would be considered illegitimate.
“If there is an annexation of Crimea, if there is a referendum that moves Crimea from Ukraine to Russia, we won’t recognize it, nor will most of the world,” Tony Blinken, White House deputy national security adviser, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “It’s also the responsible thing to do to figure out if we can resolve this in a diplomatic way, and that’s why we’ve offered a path forward that would take into account Russia’s concerns. We’ve long said we respect and understand its ties to Ukraine but it cannot change the status quo through the use of force.”
While vacationing in Florida over the weekend, Mr. Obama spoke separately with a host of world leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, Latvian President Andris Berzins and others.
Mr. Putin also spoke on the phone Sunday with Mr. Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, defending Russia’s excursion into Crimea and arguing that it is necessary to protect ethnic Russians and military assets in the region.
Russia does not recognize Mr. Yatsenyuk’s government in Kiev, which came to power after months of violent protests against President Viktor Yanukovych. Mr. Yanukovych fled his country and is now holed up in Russia.
Russian aggression in Crimea has arisen despite stern warnings from the U.S. and its allies, including personal vows from Mr. Obama that Mr. Putin will face costs if he continues down his path.
Those warnings have gone unheeded, and critics of the administration say Russia simply doesn’t fear or respect this White House.
“We have created an image around the world, not just to the Russians, of weakness and indecisiveness,” former Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday during an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Mr. Cheney said the U.S. must do more to stop Mr. Putin’s attempts to reconstitute the Soviet bloc.
Some former administration officials agree that economic sanctions, travel bans and other steps the White House has announced simply won’t have much, if any, impact.
“There really aren’t any direct military options that we have. I think that some of the sanctions that are being discussed and the actions being taken — whether it is limitations on visas or on travel or potentially freezing assets of specific individuals — frankly, I don’t believe are going to be any deterrent for Putin,” former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I think our greatest response is to have our own strategy for countering this long-term strategy of Putin’s to gather these states back under Moscow’s control.”
Mr. Gates said Russia’s ultimate goal is to reclaim its power across the old Soviet empire. He predicted that Russia ultimately will absorb Crimea.
The most effective way to block further aggression, he said, is to develop better relationships with former Soviet states and increase Western influence in the region.
James Jones, former White House national security adviser, said Sunday that the U.S. could lessen Russian leverage by expediting American natural gas exports to Europe, a step favored by many in Congress but thus far not embraced by the administration.
Russia is the main supplier of Ukraine’s natural gas and provides about 30 percent of all Europe’s gas.
“In a long-term, maybe even midterm scenario, our energy potential has the capacity of lowering the dependence of Europe on Russian energy and therefore affecting the economic viability of Russia for the long term,” said Mr. Jones, who served as Mr. Obama’s national security adviser from January 2009 to November 2010.
Beyond natural gas exports, Republicans suggested that the U.S. revive the anti-ballistic missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic that Mr. Obama scrapped in 2009.
Mr. Cheney said the U.S. should begin military exercises with the Ukrainians as a show of force to counter the perception that America is weak.
Many believe Mr. Putin already has weighed the risks and rewards of his actions and made a calculated decision.
“He is scoring huge points on his foreign policy [domestically], and that has bolstered his ability to be a little out of the box when he does something like put troops in Crimea,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, speaking on ABC’s “This Week.” “I do think he wants to be back on the world stage. He wants to be a world influence if he has to do it through brute force, he’s going to do it. That’s his mentality. We shouldn’t underestimate the kinds of things he will do, that he thinks is in Russia’s best interest.”