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Under Pressure: Obama Weighs Options on Next Move with Russia

The White House has frozen the assets of Russian President Vladimir Putin's allies, but in the fight for Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, some say it's not enough.

The White House may have frozen the assets of nearly a dozen allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but in the fight for Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, some in Washington say it's not enough.

Putin upped the tensions by delivering a defiant address Tuesday criticizing “Western exceptionalism” and accusing American and European nations of behaving in a “rude, irresponsible and unprofessional” manner on Ukraine. The Russian president also signed a draft treaty, a further step in the process of making Crimea part of Russia.

Tougher sanctions, economic pressure and even limited military assistance are among the options left in President Barack Obama’s toolbox. Here's a guide to the criticism swirling around Obama, and what his next steps could include:

What’s the criticism of Obama's response?

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the limited financial sanctions and visa bans which Obama announced Monday “won't do enough to modify Russian behavior. So far, the administration’s calibrated actions have failed to affect Vladimir Putin’s decisions.” Sen. John McCain blasted the sanctions, saying, “I don’t know how it could have been weaker, besides doing nothing.”

Stephen Blank, senior fellow for Russia at the American Foreign Policy Council and a former professor of National Security Studies at the Army War College, said that Putin “counted on the weakness, irresolution and confusion of NATO and Obama and, sad to say, he was right.”

President Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 and that did not stop President Putin from invading Georgia in 2008.

But Michael McFaul, an NBC News analyst who served as Obama’s ambassador to Moscow until last month, said Putin acted in Crimea not in response to Obama’s action or inaction in Syria or elsewhere, but in reaction to the failure of Putin’s attempted alliance with Ukraine under now-ousted President Viktor Yanukovich.

Putin calculated that there would not be an American military response to his invasion of Crimea, and McFaul said there’s a history of Russian leaders intervening in places in Eastern Europe and along the Russian periphery and American presidents being unable or unwilling to stop them.

“President Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 and that did not stop President Putin from invading Georgia in 2008,” McFaul noted.

Does Obama have military options?

If Putin ordered Russian troops further into eastern Ukraine, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Sunday “I don't think there's anything that we can do militarily” to block that. What’s needed is “a longer-term effort to build up the Ukrainian military,” he said.

And Corker agreed, saying Monday that “the United States should explore direct security assistance to the Government of Ukraine.”

Ukraine is not a NATO member, but Poland and the Baltic States are. Therefore the United States is obligated by the NATO treaty to defend them from any attack. Vice President Joe Biden visits Poland and Lithuania this week, where he will try to reassure the leaders of those NATO allies, as well as Estonia and Latvia.

Blank said a large joint US-NATO military exercise in the Baltic states and Poland would serve a useful purpose at this point. A NATO exercise called “Steadfast Jazz” last fall involving 6,000 troops was, he said, small compared to Russian exercises involving 100,000 troops. Blank also said he’d station permanent NATO ground forces in the Baltic states and Poland.

What additional sanctions could Obama and Congress impose?

Jeffrey Schott, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington think tank, said Obama administration and European Union officials “are doing contingency planning in case Russia escalates the crisis by invading Eastern Ukraine. Putin cannot discount the possibility that tough financial sanctions will be applied that disrupt trade and investment with Russian companies.”

He said concern about such measures “already reportedly has led some projects to be pushed back; the big risk going forward is the collapse of Western investments to help upgrade Russian oil and gas production and distribution.”

Russia became a member of the World Trade Organization in 2012 and, as such, enjoys non-discriminatory treatment on tariffs and other trade barriers.

Schott has suggested that the U.S. and European governments consider invoking a provision of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade which provides exceptions for national security reasons from rights and obligations under the WTO.

He said this could “offer a more flexible means to impose (and subsequently withdraw) broad trade sanctions than comprehensive financial sanctions” of the kind that were imposed on Iran.

Are the countries of the European Union also pressuring Putin?

Yes, they have announced their own set of economic sanctions against 21 Russian and Ukrainian officials, but those sanctions are a long way from curtailing the $450 billion in annual trade with Russia. What economic steps can the United States take alone?

“We can put pressure on U.S. companies to stop investing in Russian energy projects and pass (economic sanctions) legislation similar to what we’ve done with Iran,” offered Blank.

What role does energy play in this strategic struggle?

Energy policy could be a strategic lever for the Obama administration. Blank suggested that the administration allow expedited exports of both U.S. oil and gas to Europe, noting that 80 percent of Russia’s revenues from energy sales come from oil, not natural gas.

But ending the ban on export of U.S. crude oil, which dates back to the 1970s, would require action by Congress.

Blank said that the administration ought to increase support for a pipeline from the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan, which is on Russia’s southern border, in order to increase natural gas supplies to European nations. “If you want to economically strike at the Russians this is a way to do it,” he said.