When it comes to Ukraine, options are limited

March 20, 2014

With Russia annexing Crimea and Vladimir Putin’s troops hovering threateningly near Ukraine, President Obama’s critics say he needs to get tough. They argue that his response is a sign of fecklessness.

He needs to take action.

Do something.

What the critics have never specified, to any degree of satisfaction, is what the president is supposed to do exactly. There is absolutely no appetite on the part of the American public for any sort of military engagement with Russia. Certainly not after 12 years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and definitely not with a nuclear-armed superpower. While the uncertainty engulfing the region is worrying for those who live in it, and for those who have friends or family there – we include ourselves in those ranks, given that we have a sister newspaper in Ukraine – there is no vital U.S. interest in the region that would make military involvement either necessary or advisable.

Except among nostalgic cold warriors, there also isn’t a widespread yearning to reignite a hot rivalry with Moscow. As E.J. Dionne pointed out Thursday in The Washington Post, “Americans, particularly those bearing the greatest ongoing costs from the economic downturn, will not have much of a taste for activism in foreign policy until their burdens are eased.”

And it’s highly unlikely that Putin’s dreams of a restoration of imperial Russia – he has described the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union as a “catastrophe” – would have been tempered by even the most hawkish of U.S. presidents. Putin did, after all, invade Georgia in the waning days of George W. Bush’s presidency. How a U.S. president, or any other world leader, responds to his machinations is probably not first and foremost among Putin’s considerations when he wipes the sleep from his eyes every morning.

It doesn’t make for meaty rhetoric or flashy headlines, but in this case, sanctions and statements are about the best options available.



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