Nicholas Burns: Five Steps Obama Should Take Now Against Russia

President Obama can quickly take five concrete steps to blunt Russia’s military seizure of control in the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said in an Atlantic Council conference call today with journalists and Council members.

“President Obama faces the most difficult international crisis of his presidency,” Burns said, and the US has no military option available to reverse Russia’s deployment of troops in the Crimean Peninsula.  Rather, the United States should open a longer-term diplomatic strategy to outmaneuver Russian President Vladimir Putin and raise the costs to him of his actions, said Burns, a director of the Atlantic Council.  The first steps should include these:

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  • Assemble international leaders to denounce Putin’s action, thus isolating him in a way that will cost him any “soft-power” capital.  “The president needs to go to Europe” and actively lead in the isolating of Russia, Burns said.
  • Expel Russia from the Group of Eight industrialized nations.
  • Suspend all talks on improving trade and economic relations with Russia, and apply a new round of “Magnitsky sanctions” – barring Russian officials who are found responsible for Russian aggression from doing business in the United States or entering US territory.
  • Work with Europe to provide strong support to the new Ukrainian government, including early financial assistance as it struggles to meet its debt payments.
  • Convene NATO allies for formal consultations, under the alliance’s Article IV, to decide alliance-wide steps to take in the face of a threat to its members’ security. Poland, Lithuania and Latvia already are seeking these talks.

The United States should make clear that in his military assault on Ukraine, Putin has struck at a vital US interest – a free and stable Europe, Burns said. In doing so, the Obama administration “shouldn’t be cowed” by worries about Russia’s response on other issues, such as Syria and Iran, where Russia could play a more obstructive role. Russia will not reverse its stance in support of the removal of chemical weapons from Syria, and has its own interests in averting the development of nuclear weapons by Iran.

A key step from a US ally right now should come from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Burns said. She “has not taken center stage” in confronting Putin over his move in Crimea, and “I think it’s incumbent on her to do so.”

Image: President Barack Obama discusses Ukraine during a meeting with members of his National Security Staff in the Oval Office, Feb. 28, 2014 (Photo: White House/Pete Souza/CC License)