What can the United States do to reverse Russia’s annexation of Crimea? The short answer is, not much. Inside President Obama’s administration, it’s hard to find much unfeigned optimism about getting Vladimir Putin to give up the strategic peninsula.
But Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., introduced legislation on Wednesday that aims to ensure that U.S. impotence doesn’t turn into complacency.
“The American response must be much greater than a verbal slap if we want Putin to understand his actions in Ukraine are unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” he said in a statement. (Coats is among the nine Americans on whom Russia slapped sanctions recently)
Coats’ measure doesn’t read like an effort to force Moscow to pull back so much as an effort to prevent Washington from slipping back into business-as-usual mode, which is largely what happened after Russia’s brief 2008 war with Georgia.
Some of the steps Coats is proposing are largely symbolic: One provision would tell the Government Printing Office it “may not print any map, document, record, or other paper of the United States portraying or otherwise indicating Crimea as part of the territory of the Russian Federation.”
Other provisions include a ban on facilitating any investment in Crimea that involves any Russian official, government agency or private-sector institution. Another section would apply those restrictions to any International Monetary Fund or World Bank loans.
The Department of Justice, if requested to do so by a court or the party to a lawsuit, would be required to “affirm the United States policy of not recognizing the de jure or de facto sovereignty of the Russian Federation over Crimea, its airspace, or its territorial waters.”
Another provision says U.S. ports will be closed to ships arriving from Crimean ports with cargo from Russia.
Some of the more difficult-to-implement steps forbid the U.S. military, U.S.-flagged ships and airlines that operate in the United States from taking any action that even implicitly recognizes Russian sovereignty over Crimea. Why would this be difficult to implement? Because steps such as filing an official flight plan with Russian authorities in order to fly over Crimea, for example, might qualify.
Perhaps the most effective measure in the bill is a ban on giving U.S. economic or military aid to any country that recognizes Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The legislation implicitly acknowledges Washington’s lack of options for responding to Putin’s actions to date.
The Obama administration has imposed economic sanctions on individuals who shaped or support the Kremlin’s policy, but the targets have mostly laughed them off. The more potent sanctions — measures targeting entire sectors of Russia’s economy — are being held in reserve in case Putin looks to carve out another slice of Ukraine’s territory.
While talk of another Cold War is overblown — there is no sign that Russia is competing with the United States globally for influence while preparing for nuclear-armed mutual assured destruction — two terms from that titanic struggle come to mind. “Containment” — in this case, keeping Moscow out of the rest of Ukraine — now seems more likely than “rollback,” or pushing Russia out of Crimea. But for now, no one seems in the mood for a smoothing over of relations known as “detente.”