WASHINGTON – Even as the crisis in Ukraine continues to defy easy resolution, President Obama and his national security team are looking beyond the immediate conflict to forge a new long-term approach to Russia that applies an updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment.
Just as the United States resolved in the aftermath of World War II to counter the Soviet Union and its global ambitions, Obama is focused on isolating President Vladimir Putin’s Russia by cutting off its economic and political ties to the outside world, limiting its expansionist ambitions in its own neighborhood and effectively making it a pariah state.
Obama has concluded that even if there is a resolution to the current standoff over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, he will never have a constructive relationship with Putin, aides said. As a result, Obama will spend his final 2½ years in office trying to minimize the disruption Putin can cause, preserve whatever marginal cooperation can be saved and otherwise ignore the master of the Kremlin in favor of other foreign policy areas where progress remains possible.
“That is the strategy we ought to be pursuing,” said Ivo H. Daalder, formerly Obama’s ambassador to NATO and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “If you just stand there, be confident and raise the cost gradually and increasingly to Russia, that doesn’t solve your Crimea problem and it probably doesn’t solve your eastern Ukraine problem. But it may solve your Russia problem.”
The manifestation of this thinking can be seen in Obama’s pending choice for the next ambassador to Moscow. While not officially final, the White House is preparing to nominate John F. Tefft, a career diplomat who previously served as ambassador to Ukraine, Georgia and Lithuania.
When the search began months ago, administration officials were leery of sending Tefft because of concern that his experience in former Soviet republics that have flouted Moscow’s influence would irritate Russia. Now, officials said, there is no reluctance to offend the Kremlin.
In effect, Obama is retrofitting for a new age the approach to Moscow that was first set out by the diplomat George F. Kennan in 1947 and that dominated U.S. strategy through the fall of the Soviet Union. The administration’s priority is to hold together an international consensus against Russia, including even China, its longtime supporter on the U.N. Security Council.
While Obama’s long-term approach takes shape, though, a quiet debate has roiled his administration over how far to go in the short term. So far, economic advisers and White House aides urging a measured approach have won out, prevailing upon a cautious president to take one incremental step at a time out of fear of getting too far ahead of skittish Europeans and risking damage to still-fragile economies on both sides of the Atlantic.
The White House has prepared another list of Russian figures and institutions to sanction in the next few days if Moscow does not follow through on an agreement sealed in Geneva on Thursday to defuse the crisis, as Obama aides anticipate. But the president will not extend the punitive measures to whole sectors of the Russian economy, as some administration officials prefer, absent a dramatic escalation.
The more hawkish faction in the U.S. State and Defense departments has grown increasingly frustrated, privately worrying that Obama has come across as weak and unintentionally sent the message that he has written off Crimea after Russia’s annexation.
The prevailing view in the West Wing, though, is that while Putin seems for now to be enjoying the glow of success, he will eventually discover how much economic harm he has brought on his country. Obama’s aides noted the fall of the Russian stock market and the ruble, capital flight from the country and increasing reluctance of foreign investors to expand dealings in Russia.
The two sides have not completely cut off ties, though. U.S. troops and equipment are still traveling through Russian territory en route to and from Afghanistan. Astronauts from the two countries are in orbit together at the International Space Station, supplied by Russian rockets. A joint program decommissioning old Russian weapons systems has not been curtailed.
Nuclear inspections under the New START arms control treaty Obama signed in his first term continue. The Air Force still relies on rockets with Russian-made engines to launch military satellites into space, although it is reviewing that. The United States has not moved to try to push Russia out of the WTO. And the Obama administration is still working with Russia on disarming Syria’s chemical weapons and negotiating a deal with Iran to curtail its nuclear program.
“You can’t isolate everything from a general worsening of the relationship and the rhetoric,” said Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and an adviser to multiple administrations on Russia and defense policy. “But there’s still very high priority business that we have to try to do with Russia.”
Still, the relationship cannot return to normal either, even if the Ukraine situation were settled soon, specialists said.
“There’s really been a sea change not only here but in much of Europe about Russia,” said Robert Nurick, a Russia expert at the Atlantic Council. “A lot of the old assumptions about what we were doing and where we were going and what was possible are gone, and will stay that way as long Putin’s there.”
Nurick said discussion has begun inside the administration about where and under what conditions the United States may engage with Russia in the future.
“But I can’t imagine this administration expending a lot of political capital on this relationship except to manage it so that the other things they care about a lot more than Russia are not injured too badly.”