WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama surveyed foreign priorities in his State of the Union speech, Iran topped the list, along with Mideast peace and the administration’s shift of attention to East Asia.
Europe got only a glancing mention, with nothing about threats to its security.
Suddenly, Russian troop movements in Ukraine, which U.S. officials now are calling an invasion, have shuffled the president’s foreign policy priorities and set up what R. Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of State, called “the most difficult international crisis of his presidency.”
“This goes directly to vital American interests,” said Burns, who has worked for presidents of both parties. “The response has to be strong, confident leadership.”
Obama came to office hoping to defuse tensions with Moscow and to use Russia’s considerable leverage to help solve world problems.
But President Vladimir Putin has turned out to be a problem, not a solution, as he has challenged U.S. security commitments.
The dividend from the Cold War’s end — a Europe that is “whole, free and at peace,” in the words of President George H.W. Bush — is now in question as never before, Burns said Sunday in a conference call with reporters sponsored by the Atlantic Council.
The instability has alarmed North Atlantic Treaty Organization members in Eastern Europe, including the Baltic States, who are clamoring for reassurance from the Atlantic alliance.
If the United States is seen as unable to stop the threat to Ukraine’s independence, that will raise questions about the core value of NATO.
The danger to allies at the heart of Europe, as well as the continued threat to NATO member Turkey from the Syrian civil war, may make it impossible for the Obama administration to carry out its “pivot” to East Asia.
The Russian moves could also lead to a rethinking of the administration’s plan to roll back military spending and shrink the armed forces.
Obama has no real military option in Ukraine. U.S. military action would risk a continental war between nuclear powers, “which isn’t going to happen,” said Burns, who is now with Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
In comments Sunday, administration officials made clear that the U.S. has no intention of challenging Russia militarily over its incursion into Ukraine’s Crimea region. And although Republican lawmakers criticized Obama for what they called a weak response, they too said they oppose military action.
Instead of using force, the main U.S. effort will be in trying to rally the world to push back on Putin. The hope is to prevent Russian troops from advancing beyond Crimea into other parts of Ukraine that have large Russian-speaking populations and to impose long-term financial penalties on Russia for its actions.
Beyond that, the administration may face tough questions about indirect military involvement, such as providing money, arms or other support to the relatively weak Ukrainian military, particularly if the Russians don’t stop at the Crimean border.
The administration has sought to have Europe be the primary actor on the messy problem of Ukraine, a corrupt and bankrupt state. But Europe repeatedly has shown difficulty stepping into a leadership role.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry will travel to Kiev on Tuesday in a show of support for the government there. Kerry plans to meet with members of the Ukrainian legislature, the Rada, and with private civil society groups to discuss planned American diplomatic and economic support for the newly formed government, State Department officials said.
They gave no indication that the United States planned to agree to the Ukrainian government’s request for military aid, which would be a provocative move.
U.S. officials said they are trying to rush financial aid to Ukraine to ease what they described as a short-term crisis. They said the administration was making progress building support for a broad international effort to penalize Russia economically and diplomatically for its intervention in Ukraine.
Kerry said Sunday that he spoke over the weekend with 10 of his counterparts and claimed all were ready to take diplomatic and economic steps against Russia.
Among the seven largest industrial nations, “every single one of them are prepared to go to the hilt in order to isolate Russia,” Kerry said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“They’re prepared to put sanctions in place,” he said. “They’re prepared to isolate Russia economically.”
But rallying the most influential nations to act on those words may be harder.
The G7 industrial nations announced late Sunday that they had agreed to suspend preparations for the G8 meeting in June in Russia. But Germany at first resisted pressure to cancel the meeting. And German officials have expressed reluctance to impose economic sanctions on Russia, which they argue would hurt their export-reliant nation as well.
Germany, Europe’s wealthiest and often most influential country, often has been reluctant to penalize the Russians, who provide much of its natural gas.
“For too long we have heard U.S. officials say repeatedly, ‘The Europeans are taking the lead,’ ” analysts Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote last week. “That needs to stop.”
Tribune Washington Bureau