DESPITE blunt warnings about costs and consequences, US president Barack Obama and European leaders have limited options for retaliating against Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, the former Soviet republic now at the centre of an emerging conflict between East and West.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has so far dismissed the few specific threats from the US, which include scrapping plans for Obama to attend an international summit in Russia this summer and cutting off trade talks sought by Moscow.
Because Ukraine does not have full-member status in Nato, the US and Europe have no obligation to come to its defence. And broader international action through the UN seems all but impossible, given Russia’s veto power as a member of the Security Council.
“There have been strong words from the US and other counties and Nato,” said Keir Giles, a Russian military analyst at the Chatham House think-tank in London. “But these are empty threats. There is really not a great deal that can be done to influence the situation.”
As if to underscore that point, Putin on Saturday requested and was granted permission to use Russia’s military not just in the pro-Russian region of Crimea, but also throughout Ukraine. Putin’s request came one day after Obama warned that any violation of Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilising.”
Saturday’s developments follow three months of political upheaval in Ukraine following president Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of a partnership agreement with the EU in favour of historical ties with Moscow. Yanukovych fled Kiev last week and now is in Russia.
Putin’s moves are sure to deepen tensions in his already troubled relationship with Obama, who has struggled to find a formula for getting the Russian leader to change his calculus on a myriad of issues. The White House said the two leaders spoke for 90 minutes on Saturday, with Obama warning Putin that Russia’s “continued violation of international law will lead to greater political and economic isolation”.
American efforts to punish Russia on Ukraine and other matters have been complicated by the White House’s need for Russian cooperation on stopping Syria’s civil war, negotiating a nuclear accord with Iran, and transporting American troops and equipment out of Afghanistan through Russian supply routes.
Obama has tried to use his travel plans to Russia as a bargaining chip before, in the hopes that Putin might bend under the threat of a diplomatic embarrassment. Last summer, the White House dangled the prospect of cancelling a bilateral summit between Obama and Putin as it pressed Russia to return National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden to the US. When Russia instead granted Snowden temporary asylum, Obama cancelled his one-on-one meeting with Putin, but still attended an international meeting in St Petersburg.
US officials say they are in discussions now with European officials about Obama and other leaders possibly skipping the G8 economic summit scheduled for June in Sochi. In his carefully worded statement on Friday, Obama avoided saying that a destabilised Ukraine would be a national security concern for the US. Instead, he said only that it was “not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia or Europe”.
In Europe, officials expressed concern about the Russian military escalation, but offered few specific options for stopping or punishing Putin. The EU has appeared reluctant to fully embrace troubled Ukraine or risk the economic consequences of confronting Russia, one of its largest trading partners.
Czech foreign minister Lubomir Zaoralek said Russia’s attempts to “escalate the situation in Ukraine” reminded him of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, which crushed liberal reforms and ended an era known as the Prague Spring.
“We don’t solve and can’t solve disagreements in Europe by force,” Zaoralek said.
The UN Security Council met for a second straight day to discuss the growing crisis in Ukraine, which has asked four permanent council members — the US, Britain, France, and China — for help in stopping Russia’s “aggression.” But Russia, as the fifth permanent member, holds veto power, meaning there would be virtually no chance of getting even a resolution condemning Russian intervention.