Obama must take stronger measures to confront Putin [Commentary]

President Barack Obama came into office promising to limit United States commitments abroad in order to focus on the economy and health care at home. Such an approach may have been prudent immediately after the excesses of the Bush administration, but strong measures are needed now to confront the crisis in Ukraine.

During the past few weeks, political instability in Ukraine led to the resignation and flight of the pro-Russian president. Russia responded by invading part of Ukraine, Crimea, then engineering a vote for independence in that region. Now, Russia has welcomed Crimea to join the Russian Federation.


The Obama administration's response has not deterred Russian President Vladimir Putin. American and European leaders stated that they will refuse to recognize the results of the recent plebiscite on Crimea's future. This approach has been tried in the past. For example, Americans announced a non-recognition policy in the 1930s when Japan took over part of China called Manchuria and declared it an independent country. Japan reacted to non-recognition with contempt, and China's territory was not recovered until 1945.

The initial sanctions placed on assets and travel by a few officials connected to the crisis will accomplish nothing. The men working to detach Crimea from Ukraine have little interest in traveling to or investing in the United States or Europe. Today, Mr. Obama announced another round of sanctions against more individuals and a bank. He also signed an executive order that could allow broader penalties in the future. These measures will not reassure Ukraine or other nations around Russia's border.


Greater dangers lurk. First, the democracies in Eastern Europe and the Baltic region will be open to increased pressure from a more confident Mr. Putin.

Second, detaching Crimea from Ukraine undermines nuclear non-proliferation efforts. In 1994 Ukraine agreed to dismantle its nuclear forces. In exchange, Russia, the United States and Great Britain pledged "to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine." Other nations may draw the lesson from Ukraine's experience that an independent nuclear deterrent is vital for security.

Third, Russia's quasi-ally, China, is emboldened by American weakness. China has provided some diplomatic support for Mr. Putin by abstaining from a United Nations vote critical of Russia. Beijing has made a series of territorial claims in the East and South China Seas and maintains that Taiwan must eventually unify with the mainland. While the world watches Crimea, China has stepped up pressure on the Philippines over disputed islands.

Fourth, the United States could be diverted from its larger aims. Since 2011, Mr. Obama has promised that Washington would focus more attention on East Asia, a region vital for America's economic future and the center of an arms race spurred by a rising China. By not dealing with Russia now, Washington only ensures that Mr. Putin will be a continuing distraction from that effort.

While offering greater military assistance to allies in the region is necessary, it is not sufficient. Further, budget constraints limit Washington's options. Mr. Obama should take two steps. First, he should permit increased exports of natural gas from the United States to Europe. Many American allies are torn between fear of Russian expansionism and dependence on its gas exports. These exports also help fund Russia's military. Selling more gas to Europe will be a more significant "penalty" than the sanctions.

Second, Mr. Putin's popularity at home is based on the perception that he has restored Russia to great power status. He has attended the annual summits of the leading Western democracies, known as the G-7, in the past. Mr. Obama has hinted that Russia will not be invited this year, but that is not enough. The United States should request that other counties replace Russia at these meetings. For example, Brazil's gross domestic product exceeds Russia's, and India is a nuclear power whose GDP may soon surpass Russia's. Both are more democratic and friendlier toward the United States and its European allies than Russia.

Rather than implementing ineffective sanctions against Russia, Mr. Obama should take bold actions to help American allies meet their energy needs and to enhance the influence of rising powers like India and Brazil. In the long-run, such policies will weaken Moscow's leverage and reduce its international stature.

Steve Phillips is a professor of history at Towson University. His email is


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