The Obama administration is struggling to find a way of forcing Moscow to remove its troops from Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, but former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said this morning it is already too late to prevent the contested region from being absorbed into Russia.
"I do not think that Crimea will slip out of Russia's hand," Gates told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday.
Wallace pressed Gates to clarify. "You think Crimea is gone?" he asked.
"I do," Gates replied.
The Obama administration continues to insist that Washington and its international partners will find a way of persuading Russian strongman Vladimir Putin to end his occupation of Crimea, a point Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken reiterated to David Gregory on NBC's Meet the Press.
"If there is a referendum and it votes to move Crimea out of Ukraine and to Russia, we won't recognize it, and most of the world won't either. That's fact one," Blinken said. "Second, were that to happen, the isolation of Russia, the costs it would pay, would increase significantly from where they are now."
But Blinken struggled to articulate how the measures under consideration would make the cost of the Russian intervention high enough that Putin would rethink his gambit. The international community has been reluctant to sign on to U.S. efforts to impose sanctions on Russia, and the only steps the United States has taken to punish Russia have been relatively modest measures like visa bans and asset freezes.
That didn't stop Blinken from saying that President Obama has "made clear that going forward, in coordination with our partners and allies, we have in place a mechanism, with sanctions, to raise the cost significantly."
Gates, Obama's first defense secretary, said he was skeptical those types of measures would be enough to force Putin's hand. "We have to look at the reality of the options," he said on Fox News Sunday. "There really aren't any direct military options that we have. I think that some of the sanctions that are being discussed and the actions being taken, whether it's limitations on visas or travel, on potentially freezing assets of specific individuals, frankly I don't believe are going to be any deterrent for Putin."
It is also not entirely clear what such a policy would look like, though on Thursday an administration official told reporters that "anybody who is involved or complicit in violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine is as of this morning on notice that they may be targeted by U.S. sanctions."
Russia has multiple ways that it could retaliate against the United States if sanctions were imposed, and the Russian Foreign Ministry has said that "sanctions will hit the U.S. like a boomerang." U.S. companies are anxious that their assets in Russia might be seized in response if Washington carries through with its sanctions threat, and the Russian Ministry of Defense is already considering halting international nuclear weapons inspections, according to the Washington Post.
"The Russians haven't said anything to us about that directly," Blinken said this morning. "Obviously that would be a serious development. Inspections are an important part of arms control agreements. We've had arms control agreements with the Russians, and indeed with the Soviet Union, for decades. And throughout the ups and downs of that relationship, each side has made good on its commitment. So we'd expect to see Russia do that."
Gates, meanwhile, stressed that the administration should do more to reassure Ukraine's neighbors of U.S. support and to make clear that Russia would pay a price if it sent troops beyond Crimea.
"What we need to do is to show Russia that there are long-term consequences to this aggressive behavior on their part," he said. "Our tactical options are pretty limited."
Update: The White House also announced on Sunday that it will host a meeting between President Obama and Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Wednesday. Press Secretary Jay Carney said that the visit will "highlight the strong support of the people of the United States for the people of Ukraine," and that discussions will focus on "how to find a peaceful resolution to Russia's ongoing military intervention in Crimea that would respect Ukrainian sovreignty and territorial integrity," as well as international economic support.
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