Obama Response to Russian Invasion Will Have Far-Reaching Consequences

Experts say whole world is watching

Russian soldiers guarding a Ukrainian infantry base / AP
March 4, 2014

President Barack Obama’s response to the Russian invasion of Crimea will have far-reaching repercussions, experts said on Tuesday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the end of military exercises near the eastern border of Ukraine on Tuesday but said the country "reserves the right to use all means at our disposal to protect" Russian speakers in eastern and southern Ukraine. The Ukrainian ambassador to the United Nations said Russia had sent 16,000 troops into Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula following the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev.

Experts said at the Heritage Foundation that all of America’s geopolitical foes are paying attention to the U.S. response to Russian aggression in Crimea, not just Putin.

Chris Griffin, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, said "global pressure" against the American-led international order is intensifying.

He noted that a top leader of U.S. naval intelligence has said China is training for a "short, sharp war" with Japan over the disputed Senkaku islands, the Syrian regime continues to kill its own people with shrapnel-filled barrel bombs, and at least 17 people have died in protests against Venezuela’s socialist government.

"We can see that human rights are being threatened from the Middle East to our own neighborhood in Venezuela," he said.

U.S. adversaries view the Ukraine crisis as a "test of American resolve," Griffin said. He urged Obama to work with Congress on a package of economic aid for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia, which would reportedly include at least $1 billion in aid and U.S. visa bans and asset freezes for Russian officials.

The United States must also partner diplomatically with the European Union (EU) where sanctions will have a much greater impact, Griffin said. European countries do about $460 billion in business with Russia each year, compared to just $40 billion between America and Russia.

Elena Servettaz, a Russian-French journalist, said in an email that the EU lacks a "coherent" policy toward Russian sanctions at the moment. While countries such as Poland have expressed alarm about the Russian military intervention, the English press reported on Monday that Britain does not have plans for trade sanctions or closing its financial center to Russia.

"It seems that some central European countries want stronger action, while other western European nations are still unsure how to progress," she said.

Still, she noted that the European Parliament and countries such as Lithuania are drafting Magnitsky sanctions against Russian human rights abusers. Visa-free travel for Russian officials into the EU appears to be "off the table," she said.

Kim Holmes, foreign policy fellow at Heritage, said exercising U.S. leadership on sanctions would reassure European allies in the Baltics such as Latvia, which has a large ethnic Russian population.

Analysts have said Russia’s invasion of Crimea is a clear violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which included commitments by Russia to refrain from using force against Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine’s elimination of its almost 2,000 strategic nuclear warheads.

Griffin said Middle Eastern countries in the shadow of Iran’s contested nuclear program will be watching closely to see if the West upholds the agreement.

"This act of [Russian] aggression, despite [the Budapest] declaration, sends a very dangerous message to any country that doesn’t have a nuclear weapons program," he said.

Additionally, Griffin said Obama has an obligation to explain the purpose of American engagement in Ukraine and the world more broadly during a time of steep defense cuts for the U.S. military.

A Pew survey in January found that for the first time since 1964 more than half of Americans polled thought that the United States should "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own."

"[Obama] can either seek to muddle through this crisis or he can use it to articulate a broader role that the United States should be playing and what the United States can achieve with global leadership," Griffin said.