The foreign policy of President Barack Obama is once again put to the test by the current crisis in the Ukraine. Faced with a war weary population at home and an emboldened opponent in Russian President Vladimir Putin, Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry are attempting to formulate an effective response to Russian aggression in the Ukraine. The crisis reached a new level this week after Ukrainian protestors toppled the government of pro-Russian former President Viktor Yanukovych. Russia responded by deploying troops to the Ukrainian region of Crimea, an area heavily populated by ethnic Russians and home to the Russian naval base at Sevastopol. The international community, including President Obama, condemned the Russian action and demanded the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukrainian territory. Putin has yet to comply and has given no indications that he will do so.
The options on the table for Obama to respond to the situation are limited. The new Ukrainian government has already made overtures to the United Nations Security Council asking them to stop the Russian aggression. It will be difficult for the UN to take action because Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and can prevent the body from taking any action by using its veto power. Putin has also rejected calls to conduct bilateral negotiations with the new Ukrainian government to resolve the crisis.
Political boycotts are another option available to Obama and his European allies. The G8 economic summit is due to take place in Sochi in June and some of the member countries are considering boycotting the summit in response to Russian aggression. Great Britain has already announced that it is “postponing” its preparations to attend the summit. Secretary of State John Kerry has hinted that the U.S. and others may be considering a similar course of action. The foreign policy of President Obama will certainly be tested in the coming months by the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine.
Direct economic sanctions could also be imposed on Russia, but this would be very difficult to implement. There are several countries in Europe that currently depend on natural gas exports from Russia in order to support their energy needs. If Russia were unable to export this gas, or if Putin decided to cut off such exports in response to sanctions by other world powers, these countries could suffer negative economic consequences. This makes economic sanctions a particularly difficult avenue for Obama and his allies to consider.
It would be equally problematic for Obama to consider a military response to Russia’s actions in the Ukraine. While Kerry has indicated in interviews that the U.S. and its allies are willing “to go to the hilt” to isolate Russia and protect the Ukraine, direct military action is very difficult to consider. Russia may not be at the height of its power as it was as the Soviet Union, but it still possesses significant military assets and the Ukraine is very close to its borders and base of power. Conversely, it would be difficult for the U.S. to deploy assets to the region with sufficient strength to equal Russian capabilities in the region.
Obama has found himself under criticism from Republicans for what they argue is a lack of a clear response to the Ukraine crisis. Several Republican members of Congress have issued statements recently condemning the “weak” response of the Obama Administration and calling for a more forceful response. It should be noted that while many of these critics point to the perceived weakness of Obama’s response, they do not offer a concrete course of action of their own to deal with the situation that differs significantly from the alternatives already discussed. The most forceful of their alternatives involves formally removing Russia from the G8 and imposing direct economic sanctions.
Kerry will be travelling to Kiev next week to meet with the new Ukrainian government and discuss options for dealing with Russia. The statements from Obama and Kerry make clear that the U.S. does not accept the Russian action and intends to support Ukrainian sovereignty. Policy options for the U.S. remain limited however and Obama’s foreign policy is once again being put to the test by the Ukraine crisis.
By Christopher V. Spencer
On Twitter @CVSpencer79