With Russia exerting its influence over parts of Ukraine, the White House on Thursday issued a stern admonition to Moscow to refrain from “provocative actions” that could plunge the region into deeper chaos.
The warning from Washington was issued as Russian military forces continued exercises along the Ukrainian border and masked gunmen stormed a government building in that country’s Crimean region and hoisted a Russian flag. Those acts and others are fueling concern that Russia not only wants a hand in the future of Ukraine but also may have its eye on claiming control over eastern parts of the country.
As violence worsened in Ukraine and now as the country’s parliament tries to patch together a functional government after President Viktor Yanukovych’s exit, the White House consistently has downplayed the idea of a geopolitical “chess match” between the U.S. and Russia.
But Thursday’s events and the grim warnings from powerful U.S. lawmakers that Russia ultimately will invade Ukraine just as it did Georgia in 2008 demonstrate that the Obama administration, whether it likes it or not, is at odds again with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the global stage.
Analysts say there is little the U.S. can do, other than issue strongly worded statements or pursue some economic sanctions, if the situation deteriorates.
For now, the White House is sticking with statements.
“We strongly support Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and we expect other nations to do the same and so we are closely watching Russian military exercises along the Ukrainian border,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Thursday. “We expect Russia to be transparent about these activities and to avoid provocative actions. We urge them not to take any steps that could be misinterpreted or lead to a miscalculation during a very delicate time.”
The protests in Kiev were motivated largely by Mr. Yanukovych’s policies, specifically his acceptance of large Russian loans and a hesitance to embrace closer ties with Europe. He reportedly has been granted asylum by Mr. Putin and is holed up in a luxury government retreat near the Russian-Ukrainian border. Mr. Yanukovych, who continues to maintain he is Ukraine’s president, is expected to hold a news conference Friday.
With Ukraine’s future unclear and a transitional government only beginning to take shape, the U.S. and other nations want the nation to remain unified. Mr. Carney’s comments make clear that the administration isn’t warm to the idea of Russia annexing parts of eastern Ukraine, which has a large Russian population.
Some U.S. lawmakers fear that is exactly what Russia will try to do. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Thursday that he is concerned a Russian invasion is on the horizon.
“We’re going to see a replay of what we saw in Georgia because I think [Russia’s] interests [in Ukraine] … are even more important to Russia than was the case certainly in Georgia,” Mr. Corker said Thursday at a breakfast meeting hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
He was referring to Russia’s 2008 excursion into Georgia to back rebels in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Analysts say Moscow isn’t looking for an all-out military invasion but almost certainly will push for a separatist movement in eastern parts of Ukraine. If that happens, the U.S. and its allies will have few options, said Dalibor Rohac, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute who focuses on international political economy and development.
“I don’t think [Russia’s leadership] wants to risk an open war of any kind but [does want to] reassert themselves in the part of Ukraine where there is a significant Russian population,” Mr. Rohac said. “It’s a very dangerous game for Putin because he risks a deterioration of relations with Germany, the European Union, the United States. He doesn’t have to fear a military response of any kind. … There is nobody, no country in the West, that would be willing and ready to make a military security [commitment] to the Ukraine to keep it in its present form. Nobody is going to send troops, so we really can’t threaten Mr. Putin with any kind of response. What he can conceivably fear are trade retaliations, maybe sanctions.”
Although the U.S. has limited options, Mr. Corker and other critics say the administration should have an overall strategy for dealing with Mr. Putin if Russia raises the stakes.
“Right now, it appears that the president doesn’t have a plan,” Mr. Corker said. “Not to be pejorative, but as with so many other foreign policy crises, it seems that we are catching up and dealing with events ad hoc as they move on.”