Fred Kaplan identifies the contradictions in the Obama administration’s response to Russia:
At a press conference in Kiev, he proclaimed American solidarity with Ukraine’s aspiring democrats. But he also acknowledged that Russia has vital interests in Ukraine, waived any desire for confrontation, and called for mutual “de-escalation.”
But then, President Obama announced sanctions against Russia, banning travel of key officials, freezing assets, and suspending international forums. The question that no one appeared to acknowledge, much less ask or answer: How is it possible to do escalation and de-escalation at the same time?
Kaplan cites this as proof of the clumsiness of the U.S. response, and he has a point. That said, we all understand the reason for the confusion. The first part of the response–correctly emphasizing de-escalation–is attempting to avoid unnecessary conflict and reduce tensions, and that is a defensible and responsible way to handle the situation. Unfortunately, the administration seems to think that it can’t really defend this sort of response in the current climate, and so has to indulge in punitive measures to demonstrate just how “tough” it can be on Russia. The second, punitive part serves no constructive purpose, and it actively undermines the effort to reduce tensions. It is being done all the same to satisfy hawkish critics at home, and they are most interested in punishing Russia even if it makes things worse.
Dan Drezner has explained why U.S. economic sanctions would be of no use in compelling Russia to withdraw from Crimea, but goes on to say that they should be imposed nonetheless. While it’s possible that imposing sanctions could give U.S. and European leaders something to bargain with in the future, as Drezner says, there is clearly no appetite among most Western governments to pursue this course. Imposing sanctions now puts the U.S. at odds with the governments whose cooperation it most needs for a coordinated and unified response.
In general, trying to bludgeon another government into changing its behavior very rarely achieves anything positive, and the danger in trying this against a larger power is that it could then retaliate with punitive measures of its own. That would make the crisis harder to resolve and inflict damage on Western economies in the process, which would in turn spur demands for still harsher measures. Russia is already threatening to block inspections for the current arms reduction treaty, and it could choose to make things more difficult for the U.S. on other issues as well. Many Westerners seem very eager to demand economic punishment of Russia, but I suspect very few actually want to pay the price that could be associated with it.