Asked about the reality of an announced deal with Russia to reduce tension in Ukraine, President Obama was blunt. "I don't think we can be sure of anything at this point," he said at a press conference on Thursday, neatly summarizing the theme of the entire tense scenario from the beginning. Which is exactly how Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to like it.
Kathleen Hennessey of the Los Angeles Times asked Obama how we could "be sure Russia will follow through" on the agreement. We can't be sure, Obama replied. But: "I think there's the possibility — the prospect — that diplomacy may deescalate the situation and we may be able to move toward what has always been our goal, which is to let the Ukrainians make decisions about their own lives."
It's a possibility, sure, but it's not a particularly robust one. The deal, as The Wire reported, is largely a stopgap measure, offering Russia relief from additional sanctions if it steps in to oppose militias in east Ukraine. Obama continued, "The question now becomes: Will they use the influence they have exerted in a disruptive way to restore order so that Ukrainians can carry out an election?" So far, the Russians have shown little indication that they intend to do so.
The difficulty of relying on Putin's word was clearly documented by The New York Times on Wednesday. Each time Obama and Putin get on the phone, the public response from each varies wildly, and displays an unusual amount of overt hostility. "Last month, the administration described a constructive exchange between Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin over a diplomatic proposal to defuse tensions," the Times' Mark Landler wrote. However, "Russia said Mr. Putin warned the president about the 'continued rampage of extremists who are committing acts of intimidation.'" Whatever the conversation and agreement in private, Putin's (and Obama's) public goals are in clear opposition.
As Anne Applebaum wrote at Slate, Putin's entire strategy in Ukraine appears to be built on misrepresenting his country's position and involvement. "This war," Applebaum wrote, "involves not soldiers but local thugs and volunteers, some linked to the ex-president, Viktor Yanukovych, some from criminal gangs, and some who mistakenly think they are fighting for some form of benign local autonomy." The Russian goal as flexible and camouflaged as its expeditionary forces, adding an additional level of uncertainty for those trying to track the conflict from the the West. Obama was clear that he didn't buy the argument that Putin wasn't involved. "Russia's hand," he said, "is in the disruptions and chaos that we have been seeing."
"You said in other situations that the military option remains on the table even as talks go on," a reporter asked. "Is the military option on the table with Russia?" Obama reiterated that military options are not on the table, because "this is not a situation that would be amenable to a clear military solution." To Hennessey, he offered an explication of the action the United States would take. The United States must "be prepared to potentially respond to what continues to be efforts of interference by the Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine." Those responses will continue to be economic, given that the conflict "is not good for Russia either," given the economic damage sanctions have already incurred. Given the nature of the conflict — unidentified and masked soldiers swarming throughout the region — an economic response makes more sense if only because it can target Russia with precision.