The White House may be signaling a new approach to its standoff with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The headline in Sunday's New York Times reads, "In Cold War Echo, Obama Strategy Writes Off Putin." While such a strategy may not address short-term issues, it may be the best approach in the long-term.
President Putin's ultimate ambitions are not known, though it is clear he is using the seizure of Crimea and threats against Ukraine in part to strengthen his position at home. Russia's economy is struggling, and government is riddled with corruption and cronyism. Human rights abuses abound in Russia, as does suppression of free speech. Russia has slowly been slipping in relevance on the world stage.
President Obama has had great difficulty getting European support for crippling sanctions against Russia. The problem is that many European countries are heavily dependent on Russian gas and oil resources. And many global banks and businesses do not favor harsh tactics.
The challenge to reining in Putin is complicated further by Russia's role in difficult negotiations with Iran over its nuclear enrichment program, and the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons. American troops and equipment are also passing through Russia to Afghanistan.
President Obama and President Putin have spoken by phone several times since the crisis in Ukraine began earlier this year. The American and Russian accounts of those conversations vary widely, but they agree that no real progress was achieved.
Last Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry brokered an agreement with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, Ukraine and European diplomats. The agreement calls for pro-Russian gangs to give up the government buildings they seized and lists other steps to de-escalate the crisis. President Obama greeted the agreement with skepticism last Thursday, and pro-Russian groups continue to occupy the buildings. Meanwhile, an estimated 40,000 Russian troops remain in place just across Ukraine's eastern border.
President Obama and European allies have identified additional sanctions that can be imposed on Russia. And there are reports that the Pentagon is planning on expanding NATO's presence in Eastern Europe by deploying troops and fighter jets into Poland. Nonetheless, President Obama has ruled out going to war over Ukraine.
While the administration debates its long-term plans with Russia, The New York Times reports that there is a debate within the administration over how far to go in the short-term. Conservatives have been critical of the president's tactics for not being strong enough. But the president is focused on isolating Putin with sanctions and other forms of pressure. According to the Times, he has concluded, even if there is a resolution to the current Ukrainian crisis, "he will never have a constructive relationship with Mr. Putin," according to aides.
Given Russia's weak economy, President Putin cannot easily take on the additional costs of annexing Eastern Ukraine. Military intervention would be difficult and costly for Russia. Further, Putin has already cast himself, by his actions to date, as an unreliable partner to much of Europe.
Putin is a bully who cannot be ignored. But President Obama and Western allies are on the correct course by continuing to tighten sanctions and by applying other meaningful steps to isolate Putin. In time, even Putin's own people will likely tire of his act.