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Building pressure on Russia a tough task for Obama in Europe

Analysis: President faces challenges in persuading allies to ratchet up sanctions, and in defining endgame over Ukraine

President Barack Obama signaled resolve Sunday on the eve of his departure for Europe to rally support for tougher sanctions against Russia, deploying U.S. Special Forces to stop a bully thousands of miles away — not in Ukraine, but in the hunt for the Ugandan renegade Joseph Kony. No military option appears to be on the table in dealing with Russia's intervention in Ukraine, and Obama will instead spend the next three days in Europe trying to marshal diplomatic and economic pressure on Moscow.

Unmoved by the sanctions imposed by Western powers last week, Russia and its supporters in Crimea tightened their grip on the peninsula over the weekend, taking control of Ukrainian military bases following Moscow’s formal reincorporation of the territory last week. The deployment of thousands more Russian troops along the border with eastern Ukraine raised NATO anxiety over possible further incursions. But some saw Moscow's decision to agree to the deployment of Western monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Ukraine — although not in Crimea — as designed to signal that Russia planned no further direct military incursions. As Obama meets with U.S. allies in the Dutch capital, The Hague, all eyes remain on Moscow for signs of how the crisis will unfold, because the balance of leverage thus far leaves the strategic initiative largely in the hands of President Vladimir Putin.

Obama meets Monday with leaders of the U.K., France, Germany, Japan, Italy and Canada to discuss further action in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea. That group, plus Russia, comprise the G-8, but it’s reversion to the pre-1998 G-7 format signals Moscow’s symbolic exclusion. While unanimous on the need to respond firmly to Russia’s intervention, the G-7 group may struggle to agree on the extent of sanctions that can be mustered, given their own economic interests. Germany and Italy are heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies, for example, while Britain's financial sector is deeply entwined with Russian oligarch wealth. And France is due to deliver on a $2 billion contract to supply two warships to the Russian navy. 

Beyond the question of the extent of sanctions, it’s not yet clear what endgame underlies them: Do Western powers believe it remains possible to roll back Russia’s acquisition of Crimea, or are the sanctions simply designed to deter further expansion?

Philip Zelikow, who served as a State Department counsel under the George W. Bush administration, urged the Obama team to set realistic goals, acknowledging that Russia’s hold on Ukraine is unlikely to be reversed any time soon. "Given that there will now be some revision of the post-cold war diplomatic settlement, the objective of the Western strategy should be to set firm limits on any further revisions in eastern Europe,” Zelikow wrote in the Financial Times, setting the table for negotiating a new series of post-Cold War security arrangements that deter further Russian expansion.

Obama may well hear similar advice in what could be his key meeting in The Hague — with China’s President Xi Jinping. The administration is hoping to isolate Russia by convincing Beijing to back away from its ally. While Beijing abstained on a United Nations Security Council resolution on Crimea vetoed by Moscow nine days ago, Xi continues to insist that the standoff to be resolved in "a balanced way," calling on all sides to cooperate and avoid escalating the situation.  

That language may be bland and non-commital, but most commentary in Chinese official media blame Western powers for creating the Ukraine crisis by backing the protests that brought down former President Viktor Yanukovych

commentary in the official People's Daily on Friday was unimpressed by Washington's threats to Russia: "Barack Obama has also said that the U.S. will unite with European countries to make Russia pay," read the unsigned commentary. "But to a large extent these threats are gesture politics. The truth is that the U.S. and Europe don’t have much of a hand to deal with the Ukraine issue."

Chinese analysts believe that the lack of a military option, the extent of Russia's economic integration with the West, and the fact that Moscow's cooperation remains important on issues such as Syria and Iran, militate against Washington mustering sufficient leverage to compel Moscow to back down. "Resolving this kind of international problem means finding a compromise based on exchange and mutual concession, and creating a balance of interests," the commentary continued. "There may be clearer hints as to how that compromise and balance will be reached after the Ukrainian presidential election in May."

The reference to elections is a reminder that the current government in Kiev — despite its backing by Western powers — has not, in fact, been elected. And large pro-Russia protests in Ukraine’s eastern cities over the weekend were a reminder that the new authorities in Kiev don’t represent all of Ukraine.

China’s strategic calculations may also be informed by its own battle of wills with Washington over its territorial dispute with U.S. allies over a series of islands in the South China Sea. 

So, while Western sanctions are likely to be expanded at least incrementally in the coming days and weeks, they don't yet appear to have been sufficiently substantial to affect Moscow's calculations. The isolation of which the Obama Administration has warned Putin may be more moral and symbolic than substantial at this stage. 

Russia's autocratic leader need not be as responsive to public opinion as do the leaders of more politically competitive democracies of the West, but even if he were more accountable to his own electorate, Putin's intervention in Crimea and the resultant showdown with the West appears to have actually boosted his domestic political standing

Obama, by contrast, has to contend with limited public support for a strong stand. A recent Pew survey, for example, found only 29 percent of Americans supporting "a firm stand against Russia's actions," while 56 percent said the U.S. "should not get too involved with the situation in Ukraine." 

After Monday’s talks in The Hague, Obama flies to Brussels for meetings with NATO and the European Union. Both of those bodies make their decisions strictly on the basis of consensus, however, and the president will have his work cut out for him in mustering unanimity on how to manage a risky confrontation with Moscow. 

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