White House Photo by Pete Souza

Ukraine Is Obama's Biggest Foreign Policy Test Yet

Forget Iran and Syria. Everything now depends on a show of diplomatic strength that will isolate Russia's Putin. By Michael Hirsh

Barack Obama suddenly faces the toughest crisis of his presidency as he confronts Vladimir Putin over Ukraine, and how he responds over the next few days could define his legacy. It is a crisis that has appeared to erupt in his face, in a swift and unexpected turn of events. And yet in many respects what has happened in the Crimean peninsula is no surprise at all. It has been a confrontation in the making for nearly a quarter century: Obama is in effect dealing with the backlash to eastward-expansionist policies that predate the end of the Cold War and span the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The Russian president's decision to send some 6,000 Russian troops into the border region of Crimea, ostensibly to defend ethnic Russians living in that part of Ukraine, is in some ways a last-ditch Russian response to a two-decade period of eastward incursion by the United States and the West. Through the country-by-country enlargement of NATO and the European Union, Washington and Western Europe have been gradually moving into what used to be seen as the Soviet and Russian sphere, and it's no surprise that during this period Russian conservatives have tended to view Washington as a bully constantly poking a stick at Moscow's self-esteem. Putin's entire rise to political power was built on his pledge that he would permit no more disintegration of Russia, and most of what he has done as president, including his concept of a "Eurasian Union" and his attempts to wean the now-ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich from the EU, has been about reasserting Russia's historic power in that part of the world -- pushing back the relentless tide of the West.

And so Crimea, which many Russians see as their historic blood-brother and where the Russian Black Sea fleet is still quartered, is truly Putin's "red line." Judging from his rhetoric and actions since he first came to power in 1991, his move into Crimea was not surprising at all.

(Related: Heading Off Russian Invasion, Kerry to Visit Ukraine on Tuesday)

As a result, Obama and his partners in the G-8 and the West must now wrangle with some grim realities: First, a military response is unthinkable between the nuclear-armed former adversaries of the Cold War. The nightmarish outcome that Dwight Eisenhower avoided in 1956, when he declined to respond to the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and that John Kennedy found a way out of when he tested but did not provoke Soviet responses over Berlin and Cuba, is still something that an American president must think about. (According to the Arms Control Association, the U.S. still has about 5,113 nuclear warheads, and Russia has at least 4,462.)

Just as important, Putin understands all this very well. He also knows that the 140,000 Ukrainian land forces are in no position to take on his own. This is true not least because they are still, in another legacy of the Cold War, arrayed in the western part of the country rather than along the border with Russia, with the bulk of them in Kiev and Odessa and Carpathia toward the southwest. Did Putin violate international law by invading and make himself look like a hypocrite because previously he has been a stout defender of other nations' sovereignty (for example, in Syria). Yes, he did—but he also probably doesn't care a whit. "We're not going to fight Putin for Ukraine. He knows it," former Under Secretary of State and NATO ambassador Nicholas Burns said in a phone briefing with reporters on Sunday. "There are no good options. It's obvious that Putin starts with a major strategic advantage."

At the same time, however, it is critical that Obama respond strongly, and that this response be swift. At stake is not only the future of Ukraine, where the chaotically disorganized opposition to Yanukovich is waiting and wondering, but in the Middle East and throughout Asia, where many leaders have taken to questioning America's commitment to the world. After pledging and then backing down from strikes against Syria last year, and staking his presidency on the withdrawal from America's wars, Obama now has something to prove: He can take aggressive action. Whether he likes it or not, Putin and other world leaders appear to view him as indecisive and unwilling to take risks.

The only reasonable response, then, must be a powerful diplomatic thrust to isolate Putin and make immediately clear the costs of moving beyond Crimea into the rest of Ukraine. The risks for Obama in this are huge but he has no choice but to take them. Despite the fact that he needs the good will of Moscow in order to resolve the nuclear talks with Iran and peace negotiations over Syria, Obama must gamble that if he leads a decisive, united world response to the Crimean incursion, it will at once impress the Russian president and make Putin worry about his and Russia's international image, a concern of the Kremlin's that was so obvious during the just-concluded Sochi Olympics. Putin must be made to calculate that further recalcitrance not only over Ukraine but over Iran and Syria as well will only isolate him further.

Secretary of State John Kerry's description of Putin's move as an "act of aggression" on Sunday was a start. The next and most obvious step, say diplomats like Burns, should be to boycott the forthcoming G-8 summit in Sochi and, more importantly, enlist the other G-7 countries to expel Moscow from the G-8 altogether until it stands down from what is clearly a violation of international law. Obama should also suspend negotiations over a bilateral investment treaty and enlist the help of an often more hawkish Congress, calling for a second round of "Magnitsky" sanctions against Russian leaders.

At the same time, the United States and Europe should immediately agree to a massive economic aid package for Ukraine. The protests in Kiev that began last year were touched off by Ukraine's economic straits and the question of whether membership in the European Union was forthcoming, and a show of economic force now will speak louder than an army. These responses should not be dragged out, not with Putin and the Ukrainians hanging on Obama's every move. "Time is important," says Burns. "Symbolism is going to be important." In other words, the last thing Obama should be doing now is convening a months-long policy review as he did with Afghanistan or Syria.

Another step Obama could take is to call for a vote in the UN Security Council calling on Moscow to rescind the authorization to use force. As former NATO ambassador Ivo Daalder puts it, "Russia will of course veto such a resolution, but it will be important for the other members (including China, which staunchly opposes such interference in internal affairs of another state) to stand together against Russia." In addition, even though NATO is not obligated to defend Ukraine, it should be called upon to deliver a strong statement reiterating its public support for Ukraine's independence and sovereignty.

This is far and away the most brazen response we have seen from Moscow since the humiliation of the Cold War's end. It is part of the same battle that so defined the 2012 presidential campaign, when GOP nominee Mitt Romney called Russia America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe" and stirred up Putin over missile defense deployed in Poland and other countries. It is much more perilous than what happened in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia in 2008, when the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia split from Georgia and Russia recognized both territories as independent countries. Both territories are now under Russian control, in effect, and Putin may wish for the same outcome with Crimea and the Russian-dominated portion of eastern Ukraine. That may well happen—but it shouldn't come without considerable cost to him.