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?

5.  What would Ukraine bring to NATO besides a fervent desire to free itself from Russian influence? It has a volatile, still-evolving government; a shambolic, ill-equipped military; and an ongoing conflict with Russia, with which it has a 1,426-mile border, much of it tough-to-defend steppe—liabilities no alliance would welcome taking on. Moreover, is NATO ready to incite Russian outrage by inducting Ukraine? In 2008 it was not, and decided against issuing Ukraine (and Georgia) an invitation to start accession talks.

6.  Currently, the United States has 67,000 troops in Europe, down from 400,000 during the Cold War. If, to confront a new Russian threat, Washington decides to beef up NATO forces on the continent, how many more troops will be needed, where will they come from, and, given Pentagon budget cuts, how will they be paid for? Can Europe, which is famously averse to paying its way where defense is concerned, reasonably be expected to make up the difference?

7.  Public opinion in the U.S. is firmly against involvement in the Ukraine crisis. According to a recent CBS poll, 61 percent of Americans believe that their country has no responsibility to intervene in the situation, and 65 percent do not want to offer military aid to the beleaguered country. With the (disastrous) Iraq war fresh on people’s minds, and withdrawal from the 13-year-long conflict in Afghanistan eagerly awaited, how will the Obama administration persuade Americans to sacrifice blood and treasure in Ukraine?

8.  If the United States and NATO do get involved militarily in deterring Russian aggression against Ukraine, how will they manage the risk of the conflict escalating into a nuclear showdown?

9.  What future does the Obama administration foresee for one of the president’s favorite policy endeavors: nuclear nonproliferation? In this effort, Moscow, with its huge arsenal of nuclear weapons, has been a key partner. In 2011, it signed the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), which reduces by 50 percent its stockpile of missile launchers. But Russia invaded Crimea and violated the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances that it signed with the United States and Ukraine, in which it pledged to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty in return for Ukraine’s renunciation of its nuclear arsenal. With Russia’s cooperation in doubt, is nonproliferation effectively dead? And can the U.S. ever respect Russia’s signature on a treaty again?

10.  Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests ousted Viktor Yanukovych, the country's democratically elected president, 10 months before new elections that he and the opposition had agreed to hold. Will the U.S. support other governments that come to power through popular rebellion? If so, who’s next?

Before traveling further down the road of confrontation with the Kremlin, the Obama administration needs to answer these questions—or face the prospect of a humiliating climbdown when it becomes clear, as it will, that the United States and the European Union cannot save Ukraine from becoming part of Russia’s orbit.