The Ukraine crisis jeopardizes US 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 US and allied forces from Afghanistan.
If Obama’s handling of the crisis reinforces doubts about his toughness in addressing foreign challenges, as some critics say, 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 US undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said in a conference call with reporters on 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 US president was to meet yesterday with 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 US in this crisis and elsewhere, such as with Syria and China, said Richard Andres, a professor of national security strategy at the US National War College in Washington.
“This is one example of where we have reached the limits of our geopolitical power,” he said in a telephone 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 US to adopt a realistic policy toward Russia consistent with the limits of US power, Andres said.
The Obama administration portrayed the president as forthright in his 90-minute telephone call on Saturday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, at a time when foreign allies have publicly expressed worries that the US 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 on 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.”
Former US 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 Web site.