10 Tough Questions Obama Needs to Answer on Ukraine

The president should spell out what he is ready to do if Putin strikes again.
A tank position close to Russia's border with Ukraine (Dmitry Neymyrok/Reuters)

MOSCOW—Despite assurances by Vladimir Putin to the contrary, there is, so far, no evidence that Russian troops are withdrawing from the border with Ukraine. The standoff in the region, in fact, is far from over—and Putin, Western tough talk and sanctions be damned, still has the upper hand.

In recent days, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov concluded fruitless negotiations in Paris, while Russia massed troops and materiel on Ukraine’s eastern flank, including 3C-82 mobile broadcasting stations and BRDM-2 armored espionage vehicles equipped with loudspeakers (both of which are useful during an invasion to broadcast orders to enemy troops and civilians on the street). Finland has confirmed that Russia is conducting a three-day nuclear-war exercise and air-force drill on its border. Speaking to a Swedish newspaper over the weekend, Andrey Illarionov, Putin’s former economic advisor (and now opponent), declared that the Russian president hopes to “regain” Belarus, Finland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states.

With the crisis that began with the Kremlin’s stealth takeover of Crimea still unresolved, and threatening to escalate, President Obama and the American public need to start mulling over some serious questions. Here are 10 they should consider:

1.  The European Union is in the throes of a lengthy economic crisis, and depends on Russia for 30 percent of its natural gas. Since the EU is by far Russia’s largest trading partner, how will the U.S. persuade European leaders to impose meaningful sanctions against Moscow when doing so would adversely affect their own countries’ fragile economies?

2.  If economic sanctions and visa bans against Russian elites don’t stop Moscow from making further incursions into Ukraine or other countries, what then? Tougher sanctions? The Russian economy is in fact vulnerable to such measures and may slip into recession this year; capital flight is increasing and hit $60 billion last quarter. But a history of war, penury, and famine has largely inured Russians to hardship in ways Westerners have trouble understanding. To many, “great power” status remains important and something worth sacrificing for. Putin’s post-Crimea approval rating has soared to 82 percent, and 74 percent of Russians say they will support the Kremlin if Russia goes to war with Ukraine. Counting on sanctions to turn Russians against Putin may backfire, and instead spur them to rally around him.

3.  In response to Putin’s invasion of Crimea, NATO has dispatched some AWACs and F-16 fighter jets to member states in Eastern Europe. Does the alliance still have, as it announced in 1997 (to assuage Russian concerns over NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe), “no intentions, no plans, and no reason” to send substantial numbers of troops and military assets to countries bordering the former Soviet Union? That declaration was predicated on one assumption: that Russia would respect the territorial integrity of its neighbors. Does Russia’s annexation of Crimea render this assumption obsolete?

4.  In early March, Ukrainian parliamentary deputies introduced a bill proposing that the country join NATO and renounce the neutral, non-bloc status it assumed in 2010. Would the U.S. support NATO granting Ukraine membership if the legislation passed?

Presented by

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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