White House Weighs Limited Options for Ukraine

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The White House continues to weigh its options to address Russian intervention in Ukraine and it’s not clear that any of them are good.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin derides Barack Obama as a sort of foreign policy mad scientist “running experiments on the rats,” Obama can hardly afford to turn away from the conflict and its Cold War-era undertones. But with no one in the United States or Europe seriously considering military force – and with little support for another foreign entanglement from war-weary Americans – he’ll have to rely on economic and diplomatic actions from increasingly intertwined actors on the global stage.

Administration officials hope to make clear that Putin doesn't have a Plan B if the Russian gambit in Crimea disintegrates – and the White House is hammering the message that the Russian president’s actions are signs of weakness.

The first public comments after Putin’s fiery press conference Tuesday came from Kerry, who spoke to reporters in Kiev.

“This is the 21st century,” Kerry said. “We should not see nations step backward to behave in 19th- or 20th-century fashion. There are ways to resolve these differences. Great nations choose to do that appropriately.”

As Kerry was speaking, the president weighed in 4,800 miles away, in Washington D.C.

“This has not been a sign of strength, but rather a reflection that countries near Russia have deep concerns and suspicions about this kind of meddling,” Obama said at an event billed as the unveiling of his new budget.

Despite the concurrent messages – on two different continents – it’s still clear that the United States can do little alone. Europe, struggling with an already fragile economic recovery and heavily reliant on Russia for energy contracts – is far more cautious on economic sanctions than the United States. Even the most vocal supporters of those sanctions concede that unilateral action from the United States won’t create enough pressure on Putin if Europe keeps its coffers open for business for Russian officials.

Obama’s wording on Monday focused on the “negative impact” that Russia’s actions could have on its role on the world stage .

“If, in fact, they continue on the current trajectory that they're on, that we are examining a whole series of steps --- economics, diplomatic --- that will isolate Russia and will have a negative impact on Russia's economy and its standing in the world," Obama said Monday. "Over time this will be a costly proposition for Russia, and now is the time for them to consider whether they can serve their interests in a way that resorts to diplomacy as opposed to force.”

Translation: the president is acknowledging the most significant punishment the U.S. can inflict now is simply political embarrassment on the world stage, perhaps including expelling Russia from the G8. But anything more is going to need international support.

And the president’s remarks came as lawmakers on Capitol Hill mulled a billion dollar aid package for Ukraine to replace lost financial support from Russia.

And some are pushing for major sanctions. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce on Tuesday called for “crippling sanctions on Russian high-ranking officials, state-owned banks and commercial enterprises, and key individuals behind the Russian intervention.”

So far, Obama’s tactics have been mostly symbolic -- sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Kiev to boost Ukraine’s new leaders and making statements to warn Russia of the “cost” of intervention in Crimea.

That’s drawn some criticism from big foreign policy voices like Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who blamed the devolving situation in Ukraine on Obama’s “feckless foreign policy.”

But there is still less real dissent on Capitol Hill than one might expect, as lawmakers eye the possible consequences of a Ukrainian financial meltdown.

The president’s political team is aware that the shadow of the Syria standoff still haunts them in the perception department. But no serious analyst either in the foreign policy realm or on Capitol Hill believe Putin would be acting any different whether Obama had ordered strikes against Syria unilaterally or not.