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Ukraine crisis: How far will Obama go to get Russia to back down?

Howard LaFranchiThe Christian Science Monitor

The United States has released what it says is photographic evidence of Russia shelling targets in Ukraine from its side of the border, and senior US officials are telling their Russian counterparts the US has proof of the Russian military’s growing involvement in Ukraine.

Now what?

President Obama has so far limited his response to Russia’s meddling in Ukraine to sanctions targeting Russia’s economy and some individuals in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. More recently, he has also pressed for international inspectors to have access to the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which is in the thick of intense fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Mr. Obama has also concluded that Mr. Putin is “culpable” for the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner with 298 people aboard, “whether it is the Russians themselves that pulled the trigger or Russian separatists trained by Russians,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Friday.

On Monday afternoon, Obama took part in a joint call with the leaders of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Italy, in which the five Western leaders agreed the EU should move forward with "sectoral" economic sanctions on Russia as part of an effort to encourage Russia to "change course" and work towards a political solution in Ukraine.

But moving beyond sanctions against Russia – and encouraging the European Union to go forward with tougher sanctions – to more direct military involvement on the side of the Ukrainian government is still a step Obama is unlikely to take, some foreign-policy analysts say.

One overriding reason: The president wants to avoid steps that risk plunging the US into a proxy war with Russia.                                              

“I don’t think we’ll see Obama providing the Ukrainians with more sophisticated military equipment, because if the US provides lethal equipment, the Russians can provide the separatists with more, and that doesn’t really help,” says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

“I don’t think [Obama] will want to start that spiral,” he says.

What Mr. Korb does expect to see is the US providing the Ukrainian military with more intelligence – information on the location of separatist fighters, for example, the kind of weaponry they have and where, and information on what Russia is providing them, he says.

“That allows the Ukrainians to defend their ground without this developing into a proxy war,” he says. “It doesn’t make for a situation where Putin has to up the ante.”  

Not everyone agrees that Obama will go so far as to OK providing the more specific intelligence that would allow the Ukrainian military to target Russia-provided sophisticated weaponry, such as the missile batteries thought by US officials to be behind both the recent rash of shoot downs of Ukrainian military planes and the destruction of the Malaysian airliner.

The Pentagon and intelligence agencies are working up a plan to provide such specific intelligence, The New York Times reported Sunday, but the White House has yet to take up the proposal, the report said.

Obama will steer clear of actions that risk prompting Putin to up Russia’s direct involvement in the conflict because the president still holds to his policy of offering Putin an “off-ramp” from the Ukrainian crisis, other experts say.

The president’s logic “appears to be that, by not backing Putin into a corner, space has been provided for possible de-escalation,” says Nikolas Gvosdev, an expert in US-Russia relations at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

What Obama wants is to “buy time” to avoid deeper US entanglement in Ukraine and to “avoid making a conflict with Russia inevitable,” Mr. Gvosdev writes in a recent column on World Politics Review. And he says the president is willing to absorb mounting criticism – including from some in his own party – to achieve that end.

Korb agrees, saying he doesn’t see Obama responding to the charges that his foreign policy is weak by launching deeper into the Ukraine crisis.

“We heard that kind of criticism before on Syria and he didn’t yield, and we heard it about Iraq,” Korb says. ‘It’s the same argument now, but I don’t think his reasoning has changed, so I think he will resist.”