Now that the Crimean “referendum,” such as it was, has produced its preordained outcome, and probably even the most intense Ukrainian nationalists have given up hope of ever recovering that territory, the big question now is less one of “punishing” Russia for an undoubted violation of international law, than of losing any influence on what Putin does next.
In that context, all the howling for U.S. “leadership” and “toughness” we hear is more than a little incoherent. As Michael Cohen points out at the Guardian, nobody among the many critics of the Obama administration is willing to advocate military action:
[O]ne is hard-pressed to find a single person in Washington who believes the US should send actual American soldiers to Ukraine – even if Russia truly escalates the crisis and send its troops into Eastern Ukraine.
All of which raises a quite serious and legitimate question: what the hell are we arguing about?
If the US is not prepared to put troops on the ground? If we’re not willing to use military force? If we’re content with taking the biggest tool in the US toolbox off the table, then how exactly is the United States supposed to reverse Russia’s seizure of the Crimea? Our vast military capabilities won’t mean much to Putin if he knows we aren’t willing to use them.
Here’s the dirty little secret of the foreign-policy pundit/expert orgy on what to do about Crimea: the US has at its disposal very few levers with which to change Russia’s behavior, at least in the near-term. We can cancel multilateral summits and military training (already done); we can deny visas to Russian officials (just beginning); we can even ramp up bilateral economic sanctions and try to build support among key European allies for a larger, more invasive sanctions regime (under discussion).
But as our long effort to bring Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear ambition reminds us, such steps will take time and diplomatic effort to bring results. They won’t offer the guarantee of a satisfactory result, and they could produce significant economic backlash for US companies – and, more directly, US allies.
In the end, we’re stuck arguing over policy responses that largely dance around the margins, and a situation in which Europe’s actions likely matter more than America’s.
One thing is for certain sure: all the high-volume demands we are hearing from American pundits and Republican politicians that Obama magically change the situation by “standing up” to Putin (without, of course, even contemplating military action) aren’t helping. If there were ever a good time for an administration’s critics to shut up for a brief while and await further developments–from the Russians, from the Ukrainians, from the Europeans, and from our own diplomats–this is it.