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By EDWARD-ISAAC DOVERE | 3/3/14 5:34 PM EST
Now the question is whether the leader of the free world can actually lead the free world.
Any version of President Barack Obama’s call to isolate and contain Russia in response to Vladimir Putin’s incursion into Ukraine will take a united international push that would be sustained for years.
That would be a lot for any president to ask of the international community. But Obama’s asking as a president who’s already struggled, whether in Syria or Africa or Asia, to find consistently reliable partners for a foreign policy he’s tried to build around a retrenched, burden-sharing American role in the world. Even Britain’s fallen short.
For what he’s talking about in response to this crisis, he’ll have to do a whole lot better than the last five years suggest.
“We are examining a whole series of steps — economic, diplomatic — that will isolate Russia,” Obama said Monday in the Oval Office ahead of a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Over time this will be a costly proposition for Russia.”
For all Obama’s hopes of creating an economic threat, there are relatively little trade or productive diplomatic ties between the United States and Russia. He’s largely dependent on being listened to by the world’s leaders, populations, businesses and international organizations from the European Union to the World Trade Organization.
“The number one test for the president will be in enforcing some kind of diplomatic and economic pressure on Putin, and whether the allies, the EU and NATO stay united,” said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, one of President Bill Clinton’s U.N. ambassadors. “He’ll keep everybody together publicly and symbolically. It’ll be the degree that some of the allies enforce the existing penalties and sanctions and any other potential costs to Russia.”
As the relationship with Russia has publicly collapsed over the last year, American officials have eagerly pointed out that the two countries remain close collaborators on counter-terrorism and on supplying troops in Afghanistan. That’s about it, though, leaving the administration responding now in an environment shaped by the continued fallout from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the larger intractability of the Arab world and Putin’s lack of concern for international rules.
“All of this would have put the U.S. as superpower on its back foot,” said Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state for Clinton who’s now the president of the Brookings Institution and chairman of the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board. “President Obama has a particularly acute version of that, because he is, in his version of pragmatism, into cutting our losses and being quite forthright in that,”
That will have to change now, Talbott said.
“Much as he would like to spend his time and his remaining capital on other things,” Talbott said, Obama will have “to spend quite a bit of his time and quite a bit of his political capital making clear to the American people and the international community that we’re not just going to roll over on this.”
Already, there’s a crack. The morning after Secretary of State John Kerry began floating the idea of kicking Putin out of the G-8, the German finance minister told a German news service Monday that he wasn’t sure this was a good idea.
Even small developments like that matter in Moscow, where the Russian leader is gauging his next move based on what kind of international response he thinks he’s likely to get.
“Putin is a power player. If he sees power and he things not going his way, he moves,” Richardson said. “He caves when he knows he’s on the losing end.”
But Putin also knows there’s nothing that plays better in Russian domestic politics than precisely the kind of butting of heads that Obama is trying to organize.
“A domestic conflict in Ukraine became yet another instance of an alleged plot of Russia’s enemies against it,” said Leon Aron, a Russia scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, “once this was framed as a contest between Russia and the west.”
Putin’s response so far to the first few days of international pressure: demanding two Ukrainian warships surrender by Monday evening, the government in Kiev announced.
The 28 European Union foreign ministers held their own crisis meeting Monday. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had lunch with the Russian foreign minister in Geneva, after releasing a video statement pleading for Putin to “to urgently engage in direct dialogue with the authorities in Kiev,” using the kind of moralistic but inconclusive language that autocrats have a history of ignoring from the international community.
“The world cannot just allow this to happen,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague, speaking Sunday in Kiev after meeting with the interim Ukrainian government. “The world cannot just say it is okay, in effect, to violate the sovereignty of another nation in this way.”
But everyone knows that what matters is what the American president says.
“We’re now living in the era of the Putin Doctrine: Mother Russia has a right and an obligation to protect her children on the other side of international borders,” Talbott said. “We’re going to have to make very clear that it isn’t going to fly.”
Kerry’s headed to Kiev to meet with the new government as a show of support for those opposed to Russian involvement. His trip, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Monday, was part of a response that will go beyond what she said were “likely” sanctions.
Psaki disputed the idea that this is “talk, talk, talk.” The administration response is “very much walk, walk, walk,” she said.”
“The most important thing is for us — the United States — to make sure that we don’t go off without the European community,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) stressed at a press conference in the Capitol Monday.
Complicating things more, any response from Obama will likely have to go around the United Nations, since Putin long ago figured out he could game international politics was to make a show of insisting that all matters be run through the body where he just happens to have veto power — and that the American public in particular doesn’t put much stock in.
Sunday was a promising start for the White House. After spending a harried weekend on the phone with other foreign leaders, Obama and the other G-7 leaders released a joint statement condemning Russia for violating Ukrainian sovereignty and international law, and suspending preparations for the June G-8 summit in Sochi. Shortly afterward, following Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s conversations with his own counterparts, the G-7 finance officials released their own joint statement encouraging market freedom and reiterating their commitment to financial backing.
Monday, NATO announced that it would meet to consider the request of Poland — the president of which Obama spoke to on Sunday — to consider whether Russia’s actions were a threat to the four NATO countries that share borders with Ukraine.
“Obama has gotten over a big hump early,” Talbott said.
But that may prove the easiest part.
Among other interconnected problems, Europe’s dependent on Russian oil. Europe sells huge amounts of food to Russia. Russian banks would suffer from being frozen out, but so would all the areas that their capital is tied up in.
Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel is wary of Putin, but her nation has huge natural gas interests tied up with Russia.
The French government’s worked in close coordination with Washington on nearly everything the last five years, but French business leaders already drew a rebuke from Kerry for rushing a prospecting trip to Tehran while the Iran negotiations are far from done.
No one’s forgotten when the British Parliament rebuffed Prime Minister David Cameron’s pledge to support Obama’s planned strikes in Syria in September.
And this is all while things are, at least for the moment, relatively calm. The interim Ukrainian government hasn’t made any new aggressive moves against Moscow. Ukrainian troops have stayed on their bases, and there haven’t been any more riots in the streets. Despite the looming threat, the Russians don’t appear to have yet fired a shot.
For any pressure to work, the commitment needs to be for the very long term — the success that Obama’s touted from the international sanctions regime against Iran, for example, took decades to even provide the suggestion of a possible breakthrough.
“There’s public Putin and there’s private Putin,” Aron said. “Publicly he’ll be blustering, ‘No one will tell us what to do, Russia is off its knees.’ That doesn’t meant that privately, he’s not going to get anxious. It’s literally a matter of time, who will outlast whom.”
Reid J. Epstein and Manu Raju contributed to this report.