- - Monday, March 31, 2014

After losing Crimea, the Obama administration is now risking much more. The administration’s policy has been both provocative and weak — poking Moscow with ineffective but very personal sanctions even as President Obama announces in Brussels that Russia cannot be “deterred from further escalation by military force.”

Is the White House ready for Moscow’s possible responses?

On the positive side, a new round of talks has started (despite Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s red-line statement that Russia’s annexation of Crimea would mean the end of diplomacy) and Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that he does not intend to intervene in eastern Ukraine.

More ominously, however, Russia still has what NATO Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove called a “very, very sizable” force on Ukraine’s border, and Kremlin aides have warned that Moscow may move if there is violence in eastern Ukraine (which Russia could arrange). Mr. Putin has expanded the crisis by adding Transnistria, an ethnically Russian region of Moldova, to the mix.

U.S. officials need to set clear priorities reflecting unhappy realities and bad options. Among the unhappy realities, Crimea is firmly in Russia’s hands, and Moscow will not give it back short of military defeat.

Trying to make Russia “pay” for Crimea is a distraction. Russia is paying and will continue to pay through massive capital flight, loss of trade and investment, new unity in NATO and the European Union, and profound changes in U.S. and European attitudes. These costs will compound over time without a negotiated solution in Ukraine.

Attempting to “isolate” Russia will not work. The administration’s “triumph” in the United Nations General Assembly is a farce. Washington and Brussels marshaled 100 votes for a weak resolution that doesn’t even criticize Russia, but 58 nations abstained, 11 voted no (including Russia) and 24 didn’t vote at all.

Ninety-three governments were not willing to cross Mr. Putin, including China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Iraq, Argentina, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and Israel. The latter five are “major non-NATO allies” under U.S. law.

Current U.S. and European Union sanctions are about politics, not policy. Sanctioning officials and tycoons will not change Russia’s conduct. Officials probably removed assets from the United States some time ago and will find other places to hide money.

The targeted tycoons are not those most engaged with the West. More important, Russia is not Ukraine — Moscow’s oligarchs have little or no political influence.

Does anyone really think that sanctions would stop Mr. Putin? If the Kremlin wants all of Ukraine, Russia can have it before sanctions really bite. If that happens, and the West imposes harsher measures, Russia will not limit its retaliation to the economic realm — it will respond asymmetrically, with military power in its neighborhood and politically (or via arms sales) in the Middle East.

The military requirements of occupying a densely populated and partially hostile region — and possibly facing urban warfare — are the real deterrents. Since there is no clear border between eastern and western Ukraine, commanders may face a choice between a protracted war in the east alone and an effort to eliminate resistance by seizing all of the country. Polls show that Russian citizens grateful for Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea would feel differently about a bloody guerrilla conflict.

Discouraging Russia from launching this war should be the chief U.S. objective. To structure Mr. Putin’s calculations, the administration should show that the United States and NATO have military options — no matter what Mr. Obama may think.

First to go must be Mr. Obama’s nonsensical reassurance that “we are not going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine.” Why provide Russia’s leaders a sense of impunity?

Instead, Mr. Obama or an allied head of state should convey privately to Mr. Putin that NATO would have no alternative to considering immediate and substantial military assistance to Ukraine should Russia go further. This conversation should be private (no press release) and face-to-face, and it should make clear that NATO’s involvement will sharply increase the military costs of any Russian action. NATO generals should also prepare contingency plans to provide rapid and considerable aid to the Baltic states.

The United States and the EU should offer a positive alternative, too. Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski have outlined solutions, including some form of military neutrality for an independent Ukraine able to strengthen economic ties to Europe while maintaining ties to Russia.

The Ukrainian government’s commitment to constitutional reform, including greater regional autonomy, and recent moves against some of its radicals should help to reassure Russian officials. For this to work, Moscow would have to show political restraint and even financial generosity.

Tragically, if the administration and the EU had last fall offered half of what they are now providing Ukraine, ousted President Viktor Yanukovych would likely have signed the EU deal that he abandoned instead. If the White House and Brussels had been willing to enforce the Feb. 21 agreement, Ukraine would have had a new government without providing the Kremlin a pretext to seize Crimea or leverage for new demands. By trying to have it all in Ukraine for free, Mr. Obama blundered into disaster.

The president does not want a war but is eager to have his way. Unfortunately, his provocative-but-weak approach is unlikely to succeed.

History is littered with wars that one or more sides didn’t want or expect, including both world wars in the 20th century and many others. If Mr. Obama really wants to preserve the peace and to show world leadership, he will have to be both pragmatic and determined in applying American power.

Dimitri Simes is publisher of The National Interest. Paul Saunders is executive director of the Center for the National Interest and was a State Department senior adviser during the George W. Bush Administration.

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