Ukraine crisis: 'Who lost Crimea?'

By Anthony Zurcher
Editor, Echo Chambers

image copyrightAP
image captionUkraine's government is mobilising troops in an effort to deter further Russian moves

As a showdown between Ukraine and Russia over the fate of Crimea becomes increasingly likely, debate intensifies over what the US should do in response - and even whether there are any effective options available.

Republican Senator John McCain took to the pages of the New York Times over the weekend, calling Russia a "gas station run by a corrupt, autocratic regime".

He urged President Barack Obama to increase sanctions on Russian officials - a step the US government took on Monday.

While saying Russian President Vladimir Putin bears ultimate responsibility for the situation in Ukraine, Mr McCain writes that the current US administration is not without fault:

Crimea has exposed the disturbing lack of realism that has characterized our foreign policy under President Obama. It is this worldview, or lack of one, that must change.

Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal echoes this opinion.

"Mr Putin moved on Ukraine when Barack Obama was no longer a charismatic character but a known quantity with low polls, failing support, a weak economy," she writes. "He'd taken Mr Obama's measure during the Syria crisis and surely judged him not a shrewd international chess player but a secretly anxious professor who makes himself feel safe with the sound of his voice."

She concludes by wondering whether there's any unifying theme to Mr Obama's foreign policy:

Not being George W Bush is not a foreign policy. Not invading countries is not a foreign policy. Wishing to demonstrate your sophistication by announcing you are unencumbered by the false historical narratives of the past is not a foreign policy. Assuming the world will be nice if we're not militarist is not a foreign policy.

What is our foreign policy? Disliking global warming?

From the left come criticisms that all this furore is just conservative opportunism, as there are really no good options for the US.

Paul Waldman of the Washington Post writes:

Here at home, people will quickly begin asking "Who lost Crimea?" as though events in Eastern Europe are being determined not by internal Ukrainian politics, longstanding ethnic divisions, Russian opportunism and a dozen other factors, but rather by what we in the United States would like to have happen.

He argues that Republicans are quick to point to President Obama's perceived "weakness", but they only offer rhetorical posturing, not solutions.

"The trouble is that unless we're willing to start World War III, the number of things we can do to force Putin to do something he would prefer not to do, or prevent Putin from doing something he does want to do, is rather limited," he writes.

Michael Cohen, blogging in the Guardian, writes that the right has been making frenzied calls for the US to do "moar" - "more" plus "roar" - but no one wants to send soldiers into Ukraine.

Given that fact, he says, "what the hell are we arguing about"?

"In the end, we're stuck arguing over policy responses that largely dance around the margins, and a situation in which Europe's actions likely matter more than America's," he writes.

There have been some calls in the media for US military action. In the National Review, Tom Rogan argues that Mr Obama should draw a "real red line" by sending US forces to Kiev.

"In simple terms, this would have been an unambiguous symbol of American power and an undeniable signal of American resolve," he writes. Such a move would put the US in a position to respond if Russia invades all of eastern Ukraine:

Whatever the risks of escalation might be, the risks of inaction are undeniably catastrophic. Were Russia to seize eastern Ukraine unchallenged, democracies in Eastern Europe would be increasingly Putin's subjects behind a 21st-century Iron Curtain, forced to choose between submission and oppression.

At this point, however, his is without a doubt a minority opinion. The US people's interest in the situation in Ukraine so far has been roughly on a par with missing Malaysian airplanes and South African murder trials.

Is the American public willing to risk war over a region that was part of the Soviet Union 23 years ago and Russian territory until Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954?

There are moments when a nation's leaders must take action in the interests of national security and worry about popularity at a later date. The current debate is whether today's Ukraine is such a time and place.