Many lawmakers have been critical of President Obama's strategy and reluctance in Ukraine. The situation is continuing to escalate and disaster may be around the corner. It appears as if Russia is moving in to try and take parts of eastern Ukraine after (unofficially, from a global perspective) annexing Crimea. Pro-Russian separatists have also taken government buildings in Ukraine. Part of Russia's flawed justification for action is the protection of ethnic Russians in Ukraine who may fall victim to government crackdowns and oppression.
So what are the options on the table? For Ukraine, not many. Experts believe Ukraine has two options, both unattractive. The first being to act militarily. This would cause the Russian forces to intervene as they would be claiming to protect ethnic Russians in the line of fire. In a face to face conflict, Ukraine's military does not stack up to the Russians'. Second, Ukraine could do nothing, which would garner criticism.
No one wants to see bloodshed or a war, which is why the situation is so volatile. Some, such as James Jeffrey - visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy - believe the United States should provide ground troops as a deterrent to Putin and Russia. Lawmakers such as John McCain (R-AZ) and Adam Schiff (D-CA) believe the sanctions imposed on Russia thus far are too weak. This may have something to do with the fact that European nations such as Germany have been reluctant to issue sectoral sanctions because Russia is a major exporter of oil and other forms of energy. Thus far, despite sanctions that have caused Russian stocks to plummet, Putin appears determined to continue his Ukraine cause.
What would happen if Putin were allowed to continue and try to annex eastern Europe? He has already violated the Budapest Memorandum with the annexation of Crimea and would again be in violation with further intervention. The Memorandum affirmed Ukraine's sovereignty in exchange for disarming Cold War nuclear weapon stockpiles. Russia's violation of the Memorandum provides cover for those with Jeffrey's ideology because supplying Ukraine with American troops would also be in violation, but, according to Jeffrey's rationale, it would not matter given Russia's violations. Further annexation would establish that Putin can virtually do whatever he wants with only limited international interference especially when coupled with his meddling in Georgia in 2008.
Ukraine is unique in that they are influenced by the EU, the United States, and others but they also have Russian-Cold War-era Soviet roots. The United States has an obligation under the NATO treaty to defend NATO nations of which Ukraine is not a member, yet, Ukraine has appealed to surrounding NATO nations for assistance. NATO is deploying troops to the region to send a message to Russia that it will "fight to defend NATO members." Ukraine has maintained that they do not want to join NATO either. Ironically, Ukraine's appeal to the
UN for peace keeping troops is subject to UN Security Council approval
where Russia enjoys veto power, again, leaving Ukraine with few options. The United States can supply non-lethal aid but without the light weapons that Senator McCain is urging, the Ukrainian military would be over-run.
One possible (highly unlikely and unpopular) outcome is to let Putin have Ukraine without spilling any blood, and sanction the Russian economy to death in the aftermath. Ukraine's economy currently is in a state of ruin and they are seeking a hefty bailout from the IMF. The United States has also approved funds to aid the Ukrainian economy, which strategically aligns the US with the interim government. Europe would have to be on board with further sanctions despite the damage that might be done to their economy for lack of energy imported from Russia.
This could, however, be a great opportunity for the United States. The US has seen tremendous oil export in recent history and with a natural gas boom, has the potential to see even more. It is also an opportunity for the United States to strengthen relations with Iran in conjunction with the pending interim nuclear deal. Many have suggested that strained relations between the United States and Russia over Ukraine could hinder the deal struck between the P5+1 powers and Tehran, but this could be an opportunity for Iran to prove its willingness. The interim deal is set to expire in three months begging the question, can a permanent nuclear deal be struck? Currently, Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif faces pressure from hardliners but he is optimistic. According to Reuters, "Iranian hardliners, unsettled by the shift to a more
moderate foreign policy since President Hassan Rouhani took
office in August, have repeatedly criticized the agreement.
However, Iran's most powerful authority, Supreme Leader
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has backed the negotiations."
Currently, Iran is limited in the amount of oil they are allowed to export. Since they have received some sanction relief, Tehran has seen its economy improve with limited oil export to Asian countries. Their embattled economy can improve even greater if they are willing to comply with the nuclear deal and this would be a great opportunity for them to prove their seriousness. Iran has voiced their support as a potentially reliable source of oil exportation to Europe.
A final nuclear deal is still being negotiated and Washington should not hold their breath on this as a panacea for woes in Europe. President Obama has stated there will be consequences for Russia if they continue to demonstrate their defiance toward international borders. Aside from direct military assistance (which the White House has ruled out at this point), there is not much else the United States can do. Further sanctions may not deter Putin so it may be in the best interest to let him have portions of eastern Ukraine, and establish Iran-type sanctions on the newly constructed Russia. Allowing Putin to take eastern Ukraine is simply a hypothetical to provide insight to other non-military options.