President Obama is tiptoeing around Russia's apparent intervention to help separatists in Ukraine's Crimea region, but what else can he do when he has squandered any clout he might have had?
Obama came to the podium in the White House to say that "we are now deeply concerned by military movements taken by the Russian Federation within Ukraine," and warned that intervention would invite international condemnation. Obama warned Russia that there would be "costs" from the international community, but did not say how that would be arranged. Russia, as one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, has the power to veto any action by the world body.
But what he said didn't go much farther than earlier statements by administration officials, including press secretary Jay Carney, who earlier refused repeatedly to speculate on what the U.S. might do if proof emerged of Russian intervention aimed at splitting Ukraine. Since Russia has a major naval base in the Crimea, at Sevastopol, at least some of its forces are already in the region and are a focus of reports that Moscow is aiding separatists there.
Some conservatives slammed the response as insufficient, but there really isn't much the administration can do after years of giving Russian President Vladimir Putin the impression that President Obama is a pushover. From the "reset" through the voluntary withdrawal of missile defense deployments in Eastern Europe and the "red line" over chemical weapons use in Syria that wasn't a line at all to Obama's Feb. 19 comment that Ukraine is not a piece on a "Cold War chessboard," the administration hasn't given Putin much reason to fear its resolve.
Putin "views the United States as weak," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Britain's Channel 4.
Meanwhile, there's also the problem of Afghanistan — the "real war," as Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry used to describe it. Now they want to disengage, and the Ukraine crisis creates a very uncomfortable problem: The U.S. needs Moscow's cooperation as it withdraws the more than 33,000 troops left in Afghanistan because one of its main withdrawal routes runs through Russia.
The Pentagon began developing a supply route from Afghanistan through Central Asia and Russia because of frequent disruptions on the main routes through Pakistan, including a seven-month closure in 2011-12 stemming from the deaths of 24 Pakistani troops in a NATO air raid. A three-month blockade by a provincial government in Pakistan's northwest in protest over the U.S. drone strike policy only ended Thursday after a court ordered it stopped.
Russia has allowed NATO to develop a transit hub at a base in Ulyanovsk to move cargo by air, road and train from Afghanistan through the country to its northern ports. At least a third of the cargo coming out of Afghanistan is expected to move by that route -- if Moscow doesn't shut it down.
It's bad enough that Obama has allowed the Russians to see him as weak over the years. It's worse to have to confront them with Putin's hand on Obama's throat.