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There's A Recent Precedent For Russia's Action In Ukraine

President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, on June 17. Obama has strongly condemned Russian intervention in Ukraine but has not yet announced a concrete response.
Evan Vucci
President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, on June 17. Obama has strongly condemned Russian intervention in Ukraine but has not yet announced a concrete response.

Russian troops enter a former Soviet republic claiming they must protect ethnic Russians who have strong ties to the motherland. The U.S. and other Western nations threaten sanctions, but do little. Russia effectively gets its way.

We're talking, of course, about Russia's 2008 decision to send troops into South Ossetia, a breakaway Georgian region with a large Russian population.

More than five years later, a similar crisis exists today. This time, Russian forces are in control of Ukraine's Crimea region. Again, Moscow says the reason is to protect ethnic Russians. The West has expressed strong opposition, but now, as in Georgia, the options appear limited.

As Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, said in a recent interview: "We should try to avoid confrontation with Russians on the issue, because we can't devote the resources that Russia will deploy to maintain its interests in Ukraine."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved quickly, while the U.S. and its European allies have so far provided few details of what they are prepared to do to help Ukraine. One reason: It may not be that simple to punish Russia.

"The main problem that we have is that the unilateral leverage of the United States is not what it used to be with Russia," Fiona Hill, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, told NPR's David Greene.

Hill, a former intelligence officer who specialized in Russia, argued that Boris Yeltsin, Putin's predecessor as president, had tried some of the same things as Putin, but in the 1990s Russia was far more reliant on Western economic support, and could be pressured into changing course.

"The fact is that if we did pull together with the European Union, as has been suggested, and put in the kinds of sanctions that we've actually applied against Iran, that is the only way that we can make economic sanctions bite for Moscow," Hill said.

But it's unclear whether the EU would go for such measures.

Europe relies on Russian natural gas, though a mild winter and high gas stocks mean Europe has needed less of it this year. But Russia and Europe do lots of other commerce as well.

Some of the options discussed so far include the possibility of expelling Russia from the Group of 8, canceling President Obama's trip to Russia in June, and nixing a proposed trade deal.

But those options come with another caveat: The U.S. wants Russia's cooperation on Syria, where Moscow holds great influence, and on Iran, where the West is negotiating over the Islamic republic's nuclear program.

The U.S. and its allies have not really spoken of taking military action, and Ukraine isn't a member of NATO, so the alliance isn't obliged to step in militarily.

"We're really in a bind," said Hill, co-author of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. "This is a very difficult situation."

Indeed, as Ben Judah, the author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell in and out of Love with Vladimir Putin, wrote in Politico:

"Russia is confident there will be no Western economic counterattack. They believe the Europeans will not sanction the Russian oligarch money. They believe Americans will not punish the Russian oligarchs by blocking their access to banks. Russia is certain a military counterattack is out of the question. They expect America to only posture. Cancel the G-8? Who cares?"

Back in 2008, the former Soviet republic of Georgia tried militarily to recapture South Ossetia, a part of the country that had broken away and enjoyed de facto autonomy since the 1990s. Russia invaded, saying it was protecting South Ossetia's Russian population.

Here's how The New York Times describes what the U.S. and its allies did:

"[President George W.] Bush confronted Mr. Putin to no avail, then ordered American ships to the region and provided a military transport to return home Georgian troops on duty in Iraq. He sent humanitarian aid on a military aircraft, assuming that Russia would be loath to attack the capital of Tbilisi with American military personnel present. Mr. Bush also suspended a pending civilian nuclear agreement, and NATO suspended military contacts. ...

"While Russia stopped short of moving into Tbilisi, it secured the effective independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, while leaving troops in areas it was supposed to evacuate under a cease-fire. Within a year or so, Russia's isolation was over. Mr. Obama took office and tried to improve relations. NATO resumed military contacts in 2009, and the United States revived the civilian nuclear agreement in 2010."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.