1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Russia's trump cards

Antje Passeheim, Washington / cmk
March 3, 2014

The US is alarmed by Russia's military intervention in Ukraine. In a phone conversation with the Russian president, US President Barack Obama did not mince words. But what remains for America beyond rhetoric?

Obama / Telefon / Gespräch mit Putin / Krim / Oval Office
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It's unclear who first picked up the phone, but one thing is certain: it was an unusually long conversation, clocking in at one-and-a-half hours. But the crux of US President Barack Obama's message to Russian President Vladimir Putin was short: the US fiercely condemns Russia's military intervention in Ukraine.

Speaking on Saturday (01.03.2014), Obama told Putin that he must recall all of Russia's soldiers from their military bases in Crimea, or face "political and economic isolation." Shortly after hanging up the phone, the White House took a first step in that direction when it announced it had canceled its preparations for the G8 summit in Sochi, Russia in June.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper followed suit, also provisionally recalling his ambassador to Moscow for consultations. On Sunday, the remaining members of the G7 also announced that they, too, had canceled their preparations.

Search for a common solution

On Sunday, US Secretary of State John Kerry even threatened Russia with exclusion from the G8 community for its troop deployment. "It's a 19th century act in the 21st century, that really puts at question Russia's capacity to be within the G8," said Kerry in an interview with American network ABC.

For the moment, US military intervention remains completely out of the question. Obama, however, remains ready to impose sanctions against Russia, if necessary, and the US Congress has been instructed to make the necessary preparations.

Us Secretary of State John Kerry
Kerry said Russia was risking "very serious repercussions"Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"They are inviting the possibility of very serious repercussions on trade, on investment, on asset freezes, on visa bans, on the potential of actions by the global community," said Kerry. He emphasized, however, that Washington would prefer to work together with Russia to find a solution in Ukraine.

Kerry has remained in continuous contact with the crisis staff at the White House, participating in the deliberations via video conference. US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, commander of US forces in Europe, has been instructed to send all satellite photos and intelligence information on potential troop movements in Crimea to Washington. But by no means are the Americans planning to go into Crimea alone, said US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in an interview with CBS.

Hagel said that the US would have to consult with its European allies before proceeding. "This could be a very dangerous situation if this continues in a very provocative way," said Hagel. "We have many options, as many nations do. We are trying to deal with diplomatic focus. That's the appropriate responsible approach."

Obliged to help?

The US is also pressuring Russia in the United Nations, supporting the statement of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has rejected any outside interference in the Ukrainian crisis.

But the United States is, in fact, obligated - at least morally - to abide by the conditions of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. At that time, Ukraine agreed to hand over 1,600 nuclear warheads after the dissolution of the Soviet Union; for the last two decades, the US has used the uranium from these warheads to power its nuclear power plants. In return, the US, the United Kingdom and Russia pledged to guarantee Ukraine's territorial integrity.

Now that Moscow has broken that agreement, the Budapest Memorandum requires the US and the UK to act. However, the contract is not militarily binding - unlike Article 5 of the NATO treaty, for example.

Ukraine Russian troops in Crimea
The situation in Crimea remains tense, with Ukraine calling Russia's actions a "declaration of war"Image: Reuters

Putin holds trump cards

For Pentagon adviser Bob Maginnis, the current situation is like a déjà vu, recalling the events of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and the Polish solidarity movement. "These are times in which behind-the-scenes secret negotiations must take place, and economic leverages can be pulled," said Maginnis. "But let's stop talking about red lines and military confrontations."

At the height of the conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008, the US sent warships to the region. But Maginnis warned against taking such action in Crimea. "If we even move troops into NATO countries next door, all that's going to do is provoke activities by the unstable government in Kyiv, and we don't even know if the government there has total control over their military."

In addition, Putin still holds too many trump cards. Currently, Obama relies on Russia in both the nuclear negotiations with Iran and the Syrian crisis. According to critics, the White House is giving off the impression that it doesn't know itself what will come after the provocation and the threats. For numerous Republicans in the US Congress, the US has not yet gone far enough.

"The lesson of America's weakness is really becoming pervasive and will spread worldwide," said John Bolton, former US ambassador to the United Nations. "I think Putin at this point holds all the high cards, and I think all we have to offer from President Obama is rhetoric."

Skip next section Explore more