In appearances before
The president's approach to the Ukraine crisis has sparked a debate among foreign policy experts, including current and former advisors, on how aggressively to counter Russia's resurgent ambitions.
One group, which includes Obama's former ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, and his former Defense secretary,
At the other end of the spectrum is Anne-Marie Slaughter, the
Obama, in his visit to Europe last week, showed that he's straddling the middle, at least for now.
Russia, he said, is a declining "regional power" whose armed seizure of Crimea exposes its weakness, as it has lost influence in Ukraine and other former Soviet states.
He called for a modest increase in
Obama threatened to aim sanctions at whole sectors of the Russian economy, such as energy, banking or arms sales, a step that could inflict grave damage. But that would happen only if Russia seized territory in eastern Ukraine or took other steps to escalate the situation, he said.
The Ukraine crisis "worries them — it's keeping them awake at night," said Julianne Smith, a
Though Ukraine is on the "top 10 list" of priorities, along with
Asked whether the Russian move would force an end to the administration's long-desired foreign policy "pivot to Asia," deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes pointed out that Obama has scheduled two trips to East Asia this year and promised that they would not be canceled because of turmoil in Europe.
"We've got a significant agenda in Asia that we're going to continue to pursue that's not going to be impacted by what we're doing in Europe," Rhodes said.
Nevertheless, aware that his presidency will be judged on his handling of this crisis, Obama has sought to show that he intends to continue America's role as the leader of the U.S.-European security alliance. He continues to play the leading role in seeking a resolution, talking Friday with Russian President
Yet he also gave heavy emphasis to how much of the onus is on Europe — to spend more to support the
"If we've got collective defense, everybody's got to chip in," Obama Wednesday said in Brussels.
Smith predicted that much of the new U.S. effort on Russia would be aimed at getting Europe to do more to combat the threat from Russia, rather than adding on to what the United States has already been doing.
But many experts in Washington are now calling for the administration to rethink its planned 2015 defense budget cuts of $500 billion in view of the possible need to strengthen U.S. forces in Europe, which have shrunk 85% since the Cold War's end in 1989.
Gates, Obama's former secretary of Defense, is urging the administration to restore the budget to the 2014 level. And R. Nicholas Burns, a former top diplomat in both Democratic and Republican administrations, citing in particular the dwindling
But Obama's defense officials, under heavy pressure to reduce spending, say they won't rethink the numbers unless the situation in Ukraine becomes far more dire.
The growing threat in Europe didn't figure into the military strategy laid out in the recently released
Obama said last week that the U.S. would not recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea. But administration officials acknowledge privately that they're not going to try to take it back, either.
U.S. officials also aren't talking about permanently stationing NATO troops near the Russian border, which has been considered a "red line" since the end of the Cold War.
Indeed, U.S. officials see their maneuvering room as limited.
For now, they have ruled out providing arms to the Ukrainian army, in part because of concern that the Russians could see it as a provocation and escalate their military involvement.
In their use of sanctions, U.S. officials are limited by their dependence on European governments to follow suit, but the Europeans are more economically intertwined with Moscow and more reluctant to hit it with economic penalties.
Officials say they may go further than Europe would with sanctions. But because of the limited U.S. trade and investment with Russia, "you've got to ask yourself, would Russia care?" Smith asked.
Obama administration officials say they're rethinking the entire U.S.-Russian relationship and are planning to halt activities — such as joint programs on military cooperation, economics and trade — that the Russians liked. But these were relatively insignificant, and the relationship has been stagnating, so there's not much to end.
And U.S. officials, who want to continue cooperation with Russia on Iran's nuclear program, Syria's chemical weapons disarmament and other issues, say they will remain open to collaboration on other areas, if Moscow is serious.
Still, though U.S. officials have planned a limited role, they acknowledge that they may be forced to quickly expand it if Russia makes more aggressive moves, such as seizing eastern Ukraine, an action that Lavrov said on Saturday reiterated Russia does not intend to undertake.
"That could be a bit of a game changer," Smith said.