Facing what many consider his greatest foreign policy crisis, President Obama declared Monday that Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula will be a “costly proposition” as the U.S., along with its Western allies, prepare to impose harsh economic sanctions if it doesn’t reverse course.
Moscow’s aggressive act has heightened tension between the two nations not seen since the end of the Cold War roughly 25 years ago. This showdown with President Vladimir Putin, who has the backing of the Russian Parliament, represents a critical leadership test for the president.
In remarks from the Oval Office – he was set to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to salvage a Middle East peace plan at the time – Obama also urged Congress to pass an economic package that would bolster the new Ukrainian government that took control after the ouster of fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych last week. As the situation grows more precarious, GOP lawmakers – including former presidential opponents – have used the Ukraine episode to slam the president for being too passive with Putin. For instance, John McCain (R-Ariz.) said at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington Monday: “This is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America’s strength anymore,” he added.
Obama’s response, however, was a call for bipartisan cooperation and action.
“I’ve heard a lot of talk from Congress about what should be done, what they want to do. One thing they can do right away is to work with the administration to help provide a package of assistance to the Ukrainians, to the people and that government,” he told reporters. “And when they get back in, assuming the weather clears, I would hope that that would be the first order of business. Because at this stage there should be unanimity among Democrats and Republicans that when it comes to preserving the principle that no country has the right to send in troops to another country unprovoked, we should be able to come up with a unified position that stands outside of partisan politics. And my expectation is, is that I’ll be able to get Congress to work with us in order to achieve that goal.”
Despite the political battles at home, the president told reporters that he spent the weekend talking to European leaders.
“I think the world is largely united in recognizing that the steps Russia has taken are a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty…a violation of international law…and, as a consequence, we got strong statements from NATO, from the G7, condemning the actions that Russia has taken,” he stated. “And we are going to continue these diplomatic efforts during the course of this week.” The US, along with other leading industrialized nations Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom, have already suspended preparatory talks for the G8 Summit scheduled to be held in Sochi this June.
But Putin, the former KGB colonel, has countered such charges, stating in a press conference from his residence outside Moscow on Tuesday that Russia reserves the right to use “all means” necessary to protect its citizens in Ukraine. Charging that the US and its Western allies embrace double standards, he further asserted, “Our actions are often described by the West as not legitimate, but look at the U.S. operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Our actions are legitimate from the point of view of international law because Ukraine’s president asked us for help.”
If Moscow refuses to back down, however, Obama administration officials say they may take even more punitive action if Moscow refuses to back down. “There could be, ultimately, asset freezes, visa bans. There could certainly be disruption of any of the normal trade routine. There could be a business drawback on investment in the country,” Kerry said on Meet The Press Sunday.