One senior Obama administration official called Vladimir Putin's actions in Ukraine "outrageous." A second described them as an "outlaw act." A third said his brazen use of military force harked back to a past century.
"What we see here are distinctly 19th- and 20th-century decisions made by President Putin," said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity to a group of reporters. "But what he needs to understand is that in terms of his economy, he lives in the 21st-century world, an interdependent world."
James Jeffrey, a retired career U.S. diplomat, said that view of Putin's mindset cripples the United States' response to the Russian leader. The issue is not that Putin fails to grasp the promise of Western-style democratic capitalism. It is that he and other American rivals flatly reject it.
"All of us that have been in the last four administrations have drunk the Kool-Aid," Jeffrey said, referring to the belief that they could talk Putin into seeing the Western system as beneficial. "'If they would just understand that it can be a win-win, if we can only convince them'—Putin doesn't see it," Jeffrey said. "The Chinese don't see it. And I think the Iranians don't see it."
Jeffrey and other experts called for short-term caution in Ukraine. Threatening military action or publicly baiting Putin would likely prompt him to seize more of Ukraine by force. But they said the seizure of Crimea represents the most significant challenge to the system of international relations in place since the end of the Cold War. Flouting multiple treaties, the United Nations system, and long-established international law, Russia has set a dangerously low standard for military intervention.
"There have not been attacks on ethnic Russians," said Kathryn Stoner, a Stanford University professor and leading expert on Russia. "That's just a lie. There was no threat to the [Russian naval] base in Crimea. That is just absurd." She also argued that the scores of people who died in clashes in the Ukrainian capital before the Russian intervention were Ukrainians, not Russians.
But an unresolved international debate over a series of post-Cold War interventions is threatening to cause sweeping instability. From Europe to the Middle East to Asia, regional powers that might act militarily are watching events in Ukraine.
In Putin's eyes, the United States may struggle to claim any moral high ground. Some Russian and European commentators point out that the United States intervened in Kosovo in 1999 and invaded Iraq in 2003 without United Nations approval. And Russian officials have repeatedly said they regret supporting the UN-backed 2011 NATO intervention in Libya. Russian officials and some Western commentators have portrayed all of those interventions as Western plots to weaken Russia or destabilize countries in the Balkans and the Middle East.
American officials flatly reject those interpretations. They argue that Russia and other authoritarian rulers are cynically manipulating facts and spreading false conspiracy theories to justify the use of military force to enhance their own power. They point out that sweeping violence had erupted in Kosovo and Libya, threatening large number of civilians. Both interventions also came after months of diplomatic efforts and international public debate. And even the much-criticized invasion of Iraq came after a decade-long cat-and-mouse game between Saddam Hussein and United Nations weapons inspectors, and a year-long effort by the Bush administration to win UN support.
Whatever Russia's intervention represents, the immediate economic leverage the United States has over Russia is limited, according to experts. The most potent weapon Washington could use would be sanctioning Russian banks, companies, or individuals—measures similar to the sanctions that have proven so damaging to Iran's economy.