The last few days have rocked Ukraine. What started as peaceful protests in November against a corrupt Ukrainian government has evolved in the span of 72 hours into a full-blown Russian military occupation in Crimea.
To be sure, Putin moved fast. But as the phrase goes, the writing was on the wall – President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry just didn’t see it. Or, rather, they didn’t want to.
By all accounts, Obama wasn’t taking Putin that seriously when he gave his short press conference on Friday afternoon. Obama issued ultimatums, but with no real threat of force or legitimate sanctions if Putin pushed further.
Watching him deliver his speech with the same tone and tenor that he would deliver any kind of news, I felt that he surely did not understand the seriousness of the challenge Russia poses to Ukraine and, for that matter, the rest of the world.
Indeed, R. Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat and under secretary of state in George W. Bush’s administration was right on the money when he said that this is “the most important, most difficult foreign policy test of [Obama’s] presidency.”
So we are left with one of the weakest foreign policy president in the post war era facing what I view as one of the greatest foreign policy challenges not only of Obama’s time, but of the last decades.
It follows that the question of whether Obama has the mettle to take on a former KGB colonel and strategic genius in the Kremlin is an easy one to answer: he doesn’t.
But that doesn’t mean that that there’s nothing that can be done.
There are ways that we can outmaneuver the Russians or, at the very least, make it clear that the US isn’t going to stand idly by while Putin steadfastly works to recreate the Russian empire.
For the first time in years, we actually have bipartisan support for something and it’s taking a hardline with Russia.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham wants us to create a “democratic noose around Putin’s Russia.” And Senator Marco Rubio would like the Obama administration to revisit the missile defense shield they have worked to dismantle. Democratic whip Dick Durbin encouraged the President to kick Russia out of the G-8 all together, not just skip the June meeting.
Indeed, these are all options that will be debated over the next few days. But we can’t spend too long deliberating – it only sends a message of further weakness to Putin.
It falls on our shoulders to lead in this circumstance. We need to make clear that Russia will feel the full weight of our disapproval.
We should implement economic sanctions that will rattle their markets and hurt their banking sector. We can freeze Russian assets and implement trade and investment penalties.
Visa bans are a natural choice, but the Obama administration needs to reassess their decision to stop adding names to the Magnitsky list. It was a mistake to stop in December as Russia’s human rights record showed no signs of improving and it is most certainly a mistake to let this continue to go on.