The Cable

Gates: Crimea Is Already Gone [UPDATED]

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.

VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

House GOP to Obama: Take Your Ukraine Money and Shove It

House Republican leaders fast-tracked a $1 billion loan package to Ukraine on Thursday, just hours after President Obama publicly called on Congress to stop blustering about the crisis and act.

Under a streamlined process, the House of Representatives voted 385-23 to allow the administration to guarantee private-sectors loans to Kiev's cash-strapped government. The move allows for previously appropriated funds for Jordan to be used to cover loan guarantees for Ukraine -- but does not deal with the contentious issue of punitive measures against Russia. Legislation authorizing the sanctions could be taken up as early as Friday but is more likely to be debated next week.

The vote marks the first Congressional action to bolster Ukraine, which is undergoing a geopolitical crisis following Russia's occupation of its Crimean peninsula. On Thursday, House leadership expressed frustration that it had taken heat for being a "do-nothing Congress," when it acted faster than the Democratically-controlled Senate.

"The president knew this was being voted on this afternoon and he goes into the Brady Room and says Congress has to act on my words?" a Republican House leadership aide said. "For God's sake. We're doing what you want."

In recent days, Washington has been consumed by finger-pointing over Moscow's land grab in Ukraine, with partisans on both side accusing the other of perceived foreign-policy weaknesses.

On Thursday morning, the Obama administration imposed visa restrictions on unnamed Russian and Ukrainian officials and authorized financial sanctions against Moscow. It stopped short, though, of freezing any assets of Russian officials. In the run-up to the administration's  move, Republicans ranging from Arizona Senator John McCain to Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor criticized the president for failing to get tough with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"This is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America's strength any more," said McCain.

But the fast-tracking of the Ukraine aide package caught off guard committee aides in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who still planned to introduce legislation dealing with a range of Ukraine issues, including funding for election monitoring, the $1 billion loan guarantee and punitive sanctions. "We were certainly surprised," said a committee aide. Following today's vote, the committee plans to introduce a separate piece of legislation that deals with those remaining issues. 

The ball now is in the Senate's court to hold a similar vote as the House or pass a broader piece of legislation dealing with a range of issues pertaining to Ukraine. "That's what is being worked on and discussed now," said a senior Democratic aide.

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