WASHINGTON — The Ukraine crisis jeopardizes President Barack Obama’s efforts to enlist Russia’s cooperation on a range of issues, including seeking an end to Syria’s civil war, halting Iran’s nuclear ambitions and facilitating the withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces from Afghanistan.
If the president’s handling of the crisis reinforces doubts about his toughness in addressing foreign challenges, as some critics assert, it could affect a more diverse range of issues: Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, North Korea’s nuclear weapons advances and China’s increasingly aggressive regional posture.
The tense situation in Ukraine, with its echoes of the Cold War, has put Obama at the forefront of the crisis as European leaders pressure Russia to drop military threats and withdraw forces from Ukraine’s Crimea region.
“President Obama faces the most difficult international crisis of his presidency,” former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said in a conference call with reporters Sunday organized by the Atlantic Council, a foreign-policy research organization based in Washington.
In addition to a growing confrontation with Russia, Obama faces an increasingly assertive China that is pressing territorial disputes and stirring rising nationalism in Japan and South Korea; resurgent Islamic extremism in Syria, Iraq, and northern Africa; the nuclear negotiations with Iran and unrest in nations such as Egypt, Venezuela and Thailand.
The president was scheduled Monday to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has differed with Obama on how hard to press Iran on curbing its nuclear program and how flexible to be in negotiations with the Palestinians.
While moving diplomatically to pressure Russia, Obama is “wise” to recognize the limits on the United States in this crisis and elsewhere, such as with Syria and China, said Richard Andres, a professor of national security strategy at the U.S. National War College in Washington.
“This is one example of where we have reached the limits of our geopolitical power,” he said in a phone interview. “We’ve seen a number of these situations recently, such as in Syria, where we made the decision not to intervene — which is something we wouldn’t have done in years past. For the last 20 or 25 years, we have seldom seen a crisis that we did not try to intervene in.”
This crisis highlights the need for the U.S. to adopt a realistic policy toward Russia consistent with the limits of American power, Andres said.
The Obama administration portrayed the president as forthright in his 90-minute phone call on March 1 with Russian President Vladimir Putin, at a time when foreign allies have publicly expressed worries that the U.S. is withdrawing from its international leadership role.
“The president was very strong” on the point that Russia needs to “roll back this invasion,” Kerry said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” broadcast. “He made absolutely clear that this was unacceptable and that there will be serious repercussions if this stands.”
A former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, called that approach “ill-advised” because it fails to take into account the Russian leader’s psychology.
“Whatever slim hope that Moscow might avoid overt military intervention in Ukraine disappeared when Obama in effect threw down a gauntlet and challenged him,” Matlock, who was ambassador in the final years of the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991, wrote in a commentary on his website.
Burns differed, saying it was important for the U.S. to make clear that Russia’s military assault on Ukraine strikes at a vital U.S. interest, which is a free and stable Europe. The Obama administration “shouldn’t be cowed” by worries about Russia’s response on other issues, where it could interfere, he said.
The U.S. and Russia had some accomplishments early in Obama’s first term, including the “New Start” treaty to reduce nuclear weapons and Russia’s membership in the World Trade Organization. A June 2010 White House fact sheet on the results of Obama’s effort to “reset” the relationship listed 17 areas of cooperation, including on Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, trade and military-to-military engagement.
Any reset in U.S.-Russia relations now has vanished to the point where Kerry Sunday responded to a question from David Gregory, moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” by saying, “Well, I don’t know what you mean by the reset.”
Deteriorating relations with Russia threaten to jeopardize other U.S. foreign policy priorities.
Greater Russian intransigence and stepped-up aid to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad would make it harder to implement the agreement to remove all of Syria’s chemical weapons, said Ian Bremmer, president of the New York-based Eurasia Group consulting firm.
Obama also needs Putin to get American and allied forces and equipment home from Afghanistan because the U.S. depends on Russia for part of its Northern Distribution Network.
The network of supply routes “is of great value, and it depends on Russia,” said Daniel Serwer of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
Obama’s second-term plan to seek further cuts in U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear arsenals has been thwarted by Putin’s opposition to the U.S. missile defense system being deployed in Europe and by evidence that Russia may be violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by testing a ground- launched cruise missile.
The president’s efforts to end the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to cut the U.S. military budget and reduce the federal deficit, and to focus on domestic issues have been watched closely by foreign nations. Polls have found that Americans want to pull back from foreign commitments, and that mood carries over to much of Congress in this mid-term election year.
Kerry, speaking to reporters last week in Washington, decried what he called a “new isolationism” in the U.S., saying Americans don’t perceive the connection between U.S. engagement abroad and the American economy.
Obama’s partisan critics, such as Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have said Obama’s limited credibility abroad may have emboldened Putin to use military means to keep Ukraine in Russia’s political and economic orbit.
“Every time the president goes on national television and threatens Putin or anyone like Putin, everybody’s eyes roll, including mine,” Graham said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday. “We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression.”
Republicans such as Graham and Sen. John McCain of Arizona and some U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia have said Obama has shown weakness abroad, pointing to his backing off his own “red line” threatening military strikes against the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons.
Obama disputed that view in an interview released Sunday with Bloomberg View columnist Jeffrey Goldberg. He said the threat of “kinetic strikes” was enough to get Syria to give up its chemical weapons in a deal brokered by Russia.
“Now the truth is, some of our commentators or friends in the region, their complaint is not that somehow we indicated an unwillingness to use military force in the region,” Obama said in the Feb. 27 interview. “Their complaint is that I did not choose to go ahead, even if we could get a deal on chemical weapons, to hit them anyway as a means of getting rid” of Assad.
As for Iran, Obama said he’s certain its leaders believe his threat to force if it seeks to acquire nuclear weapons.
“I know they take it seriously,” he said.