Even as the crisis in Ukraine continues to defy easy resolution, President Barack Obama and his national security team are looking beyond the immediate conflict to forge a new long-term approach to Russia that applies an updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment. (Wielding sanctions as scalpel, Barack Obama aimed for Vladimir Putin’s inner circle)
Just as the United States resolved in the aftermath of World War II to counter the Soviet Union and its global ambitions, Obama is focused on isolating President Vladimir Putin’s Russia by cutting off its economic and political ties to the outside world, limiting its expansionist ambitions in its own neighborhood and effectively making it a pariah state.
Obama has concluded that even if there is a resolution to the current standoff over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, he will never have a constructive relationship with Putin, aides said. As a result, Obama will spend his final 2 1/2 years in office trying to minimise the disruption Putin can cause, preserve whatever marginal cooperation can be saved and otherwise ignore the master of the Kremlin in favor of other foreign policy areas where progress remains possible. (Separatists tighten grip on east Ukraine, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin talk)
“That is the strategy we ought to be pursuing,” said Ivo H Daalder, formerly Obama’s ambassador to NATO and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
“If you just stand there, be confident and raise the cost gradually and increasingly to Russia, that doesn’t solve your Crimea problem and it probably doesn’t solve your eastern Ukraine problem. But it may solve your Russia problem.”
The manifestation of this thinking can be seen in Obama’s pending choice for the next ambassador to Moscow. While not officially final, the White House is preparing to nominate John F Tefft, a career diplomat who previously served as ambassador to Ukraine, Georgia and Lithuania. (Crimea vote fully legal, Vladimir Putin tells Barack Obama)
When the search began months ago, administration officials were leery of sending Tefft because of concern that his experience in former Soviet republics that have flouted Moscow’s influence would irritate Russia. Now, officials said, there is no reluctance to offend the Kremlin.
In effect, Obama is retrofitting for a new age the approach to Moscow that was first set out by the diplomat George F. Kennan in 1947 and that dominated US strategy through the fall of the Soviet Union. The administration’s priority is to hold together an international consensus against Russia, including even China, its longtime supporter on the UN Security Council. (Barack Obama says relationship with Vladimir Putin not icy)
While Obama’s long-term approach takes shape, though, a quiet debate has roiled his administration over how far to go in the short term. So far, economic advisers and White House aides urging a measured approach have won out, prevailing upon a cautious president to take one incremental step at a time out of fear of getting too far ahead of skittish Europeans and risking damage to still-fragile economies on both sides of the Atlantic.
The White House has prepared another list of Russian figures and institutions to sanction in the next few days if Moscow does not follow through on an agreement sealed in Geneva on Thursday to defuse the crisis, as Obama aides anticipate. But the president will not extend the punitive measures to whole sectors of the Russian economy, as some administration officials prefer, absent a dramatic escalation.
The more hawkish faction in the US State and Defense departments has grown increasingly frustrated, privately worrying that Obama has come across as weak and unintentionally sent the message that he has written off Crimea after Russia’s annexation.
They have pressed for faster and more expansive sanctions, only to wait while memos sit in the White House without action. Obama has not even imposed sanctions on a list of Russian human rights violators waiting for approval since winter. (Vladimir Putin rebuffs Barack Obama)
“They’re playing us,” Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said of the Russians, expressing a sentiment that is shared by some inside the Obama administration. “We continue to watch what they’re doing and try to respond to that,” he said on CNN on Friday. “But it seems that in doing so, we create a policy that’s always a day late and a dollar short.”
The prevailing view in the West Wing, though, is that while Putin seems for now to be enjoying the glow of success, he will eventually discover how much economic harm he has brought on his country. Obama’s aides noted the fall of the Russian stock market and the ruble, capital flight from the country and increasing reluctance of foreign investors to expand dealings in Russia.
They argued that while US and European sanctions have not yet targeted wide parts of the Russian economy, they have sent a message to international businesses and that just the threat of broader measures has produced a chilling effect. If the Russian economy suffers over the long term, senior US officials said, then Putin’s implicit compact with the Russian public promising growth for political control could be sundered.
That may not happen quickly, however, and in the meantime, Obama seems intent on not letting Russia dominate his presidency. While Obama spends a lot of time on the Ukraine crisis, it does not seem to absorb him. Speaking privately with visitors, he is more likely to bring up topics like health care and the Republicans in Congress than Putin. Ukraine, he tells people, is not a major concern for most Americans, who are focused on the economy and other issues closer to home.
Since returning from a trip to Europe last month, Obama has concentrated his public schedule around issues like job training and the minimum wage. Even after his diplomatic team reached the Geneva agreement to de-escalate the crisis last week, Obama headed to the White House briefing room not to talk about that but to hail new enrollment numbers he said validated his health care program.
Reporters asked about Ukraine anyway, as he knew they would, and he expressed skepticism about the prospects of the Geneva accord that his secretary of state, John Kerry, had just brokered. But when a reporter turned the subject back to health care, Obama happily exclaimed, “Yeah, let’s talk about that.”