DAVID IGNATIUS: Obama’s Ukraine gamble

DAVID IGNATIUS

DAVID IGNATIUS

Since the Ukraine crisis began, Obama administration officials have talked about pushing Russia toward the “offramp” and de-escalation. That’s the best diplomatic outcome, but it will require an unlikely public reversal by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The premise of the administration’s approach is that Putin will decide that he made a mistake by seizing the Crimean region of Ukraine and, as he faces ever-greater costs, will negotiate a face-saving compromise, concluding that Russia’s interests are better served by a return to the status quo.

The exit path, as envisioned by the White House, seeks to address Russian concerns without undermining the new Ukrainian government. To answer Putin’s complaints about the supposed mistreatment of Russian-speakers, international monitors have arrived in Crimea. But Russia must now work with the transitional government in Kiev and support elections to choose a successor to President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled last month. Finally, the Russians must return to their military bases in Crimea.

It’s a lot for Putin to swallow and so far, he has refused.

Obama on Thursday added pressure for Putin to stand down. The White House announced visa restrictions and a structure for targeted sanctions against Russians and their allies who are threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Obama’s bet on Putin’s rational willingness to compromise is a long shot, it must be said. Obama views him as a “transactional” leader who will make a deal at the right price.

Obama, perhaps stung by conservative criticism that his foreign policy has been weak and vacillating, has in this crisis adopted a strategy of measured escalation. The aim, an administration official explained Thursday morning, is to “calibrate sanctions based on what the Russians do.” The strategy has three legs:

First, the administration seeks to impose “costs” for the Russian intervention; this was essential after Putin’s humiliating rebuff of Obama’s warning last Friday against such action.

Second, the U.S. mobilized its NATO allies to prevent further Russian expansion in the region. Pentagon sources say that several dozen measures have already been adopted, including new NATO exercises and U.S. visits.

Finally, Obama has kept the exit door open, even as he tries to push Putin through.

U.S. officials who still think a deal with Putin is possible point to what a Washington Post headline called his “strange, rambling press conference” on Tuesday. Putin denied Russian troops had invaded (“there is no need for it”), and it’s noteworthy that Russian troops in Crimea haven’t worn identification badges. \The ex-spy appears to be styling his Crimean campaign as a covert action. Perhaps if it never officially happened, it’s easier to back down.

Putin returned again and again during his news conference to the theme of legitimacy. He even said he sympathized with the protesters in Kiev who are “used to seeing one set of thieves being replaced by another.” Putin, in his weird way, wants to appear on the right side of history. But finding a way out of this crisis and maintaining the legitimacy he prizes will require Putin to change course. That’s the uncertain bet Obama is making.

David Igntius’ emaill address is davidignatius@washpost.com.