The pressure is mounting quickly for the president to respond – and respond forcefully – to Russia’s move into Ukraine.


WASHINGTON – As Russia dispatched more forces and tightened its grip on the Crimean Peninsula on Sunday, President Obama embarked on a strategy intended to isolate Moscow and prevent it from seizing more Ukrainian territory even as he was pressured at home to respond more forcefully.

Working the telephone from the Oval Office, Obama rallied allies, dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to Kiev and approved a series of diplomatic and economic moves intended to “make it hurt,” as one administration official put it. But the president found himself besieged by advice to take more assertive action.

“Create a democratic noose around Putin’s Russia,” urged Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “Revisit the missile defense shield,” suggested Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “Cancel Sochi,” argued Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who leads the Intelligence Committee, referring to the Group of 8 summit meeting to be hosted by President Vladimir Putin. Kick “him out of the G-8” altogether, said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip.

The Russian occupation of Crimea has challenged Obama as has no other international crisis, and at its heart, the advice seemed to pose the same question: Is Obama tough enough to take on the former KGB colonel in the Kremlin?

Obama came to office with little foreign-policy experience and has been repeatedly tested by the challenges of a new world in which the main threats are Islamic extremism and civil war. While ramping up targeted drone strikes and initially building up forces in Afghanistan, he has made it his mission to pull out of two long wars and keep out of any new ones.

But the limits of his influence have been driven home in recent weeks, with Syria’s pressing its civil war and Afghanistan’s refusing to sign an agreement for residual forces. Now the Crimea crisis has presented him with an elemental threat much like the one that confronted his predecessors for four decades: a geopolitical struggle in the middle of Europe. First, the pro-Russian government in Kiev, now deposed, defied his warnings not to shoot protesters, and now Putin has ignored his admonitions to stay out of Ukraine.

Caught off guard, Obama is left to play catch-up while Putin establishes reality on the ground. With 6,000 Russian troops being reinforced on Sunday by thousands more, Putin effectively severed the peninsula, with its largely Russian-speaking population, from the rest of Ukraine.

In Kiev on Sunday, Ukraine’s besieged interim government raced to head off violence, recruiting wealthy eastern businessmen to become provincial governors. The strategy is recognition that the oligarchs represent the country’s industrial and business elite and hold great influence over thousands of workers in the east.

Officials said the hope was that they could dampen secessionist hopes in the east and keep violent outbreaks – like fighting between pro-Western and pro-Russian protesters in Kharkiv that put at least 100 people in the hospital Saturday – from providing a rationale for a full Russian invasion.

In Kharkiv, the eastern city that is the country’s second-largest, a sprawling pro-Russian protest camp occupied the central square, and Russian flags were on display. Many said they would even prefer that Russian troops invade the city, just 20 miles from the border, instead of submitting to Kiev’s rule.

Even as Kiev’s pro-Western government called up its army reserves and vowed to fight for its sovereignty, calling Russia’s invasion of Crimea a “declaration of war,” it mustered a mostly political response to demonstrations in the east.

Russia on Sunday kept up its propaganda campaign in defense of the Crimean takeover, citing undefined threats to Russian citizens and proclaiming large defections of Ukrainian forces in Crimea, which Western reporters said appeared to be unfounded.

Instead, the scenes were of Ukrainian troops in the peninsula being bottled up in their bases, surrounded by heavily armed soldiers without insignia.

“Russian forces now have complete operational control of the Crimean peninsula,” a senior Obama administration official said on the condition of anonymity.

No significant political leaders in Washington have urged a military response to the crisis, but many wanted Obama to go further than he has so far. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, has already devised language to serve as the basis for possible bipartisan legislation outlining a forceful response, including sanctions against Russia and economic support for Ukraine.

The president has spoken out against Putin’s actions and termed them a “breach of international law.” But he has left the harshest condemnations to Kerry, who on Sunday called them a “brazen act of aggression” and “a stunning willful choice by President Putin,” accusing him of “weakness” and “desperation.”

In a series of television interviews, Kerry suggested that the United States might boycott the Sochi meeting in June and warned that Russia could be expelled from the G-8, although Germany publicly expressed opposition to that idea.

But Obama offered Russia what aides called an “off ramp,” a face-saving way out of the crisis, by proposing that European observers take the place of Russian forces in Crimea to guard against the supposed threats to the Russian-speaking population cited by the Kremlin as justification for its intervention.

Obama’s aides said that they saw no evidence of such threats and considered the claim a bogus pretext and that they wanted to call Putin’s bluff. Privately, they said they did not expect Putin to accept.

They said they were focusing on blocking any further Russian move into eastern Ukraine that would split the country along ethnic lines.

Some regional specialists said Obama should ignore the talk-tough chorus and focus instead on defusing a crisis that could get much worse. Andrew Weiss, a national security aide to President Bill Clinton, said the Obama administration should be trying to keep Ukraine and Russia from open war.

“For us to just talk about how tough we are, we may score some points but lose the war here,” Weiss said.