It is risky to say this, but I am slightly less anxious about the Ukraine crisis than many people seem to be, for several reasons.
First, I see no fundamental test of U.S. resolve or President Obama underway, no broad international doubting about America’s commitment to global leadership.
To be sure, there are problems in our foreign policy, starting with Syria. And President Obama’s rhetoric on Afghanistan focuses too much on ending the war, not enough on highlighting our gains and seeking to lock them in.
But on balance, the president looks reasonably resolute to me in most of his actual policies. For starters in Afghanistan itself, where actions speak louder than words, and 35,000 U.S. troops remain. Then there's Iran, where I think he means it when he insists that Iran will not get a nuclear bomb on his watch. And, on the Asia-Pacific rebalance, where the main threat to success is not Obama but sequestration (something the president is trying to overturn).
As for the situation in Ukraine itself, as badly behaved as President Putin has been in this crisis, there have been limits.
- He hasn't killed people, at least not yet.
- He is apparently trying to show force in a way that gets a specific task done.
- He wants to protect his military bases in Crimea, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet (historically one of Russia's big four) is based.
- He wants, he says, to protect fellow ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, of whom there are many in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. This latter point does raise the worry that he will move into eastern Ukraine, but it also suggests there are ways for the government in Kiev to make such an intervention less likely by working hard to stabilize the situation there.
I doubt very much that Putin is seeking to forcibly annex part of Ukraine. Part of his worldview may desire that, to be sure. But we have a pretty strong set of potential economic sanctions at our disposal and Putin knows it. And we've gotten a lot better in the last years at applying sanctions largely because of the Iran and North Korea experiences.
The international community knows how to do this -- how to go after the banking sector, the individual wealth of top Russian leaders, their visas and travel rights, and so on.
We can try to help Europe gain new sources of energy as well. Russia cannot thrive if the western world collectively seeks to punish Putin and to do so for a considerable period. So I'm relatively confident Putin won't escalate.
That said, our policy now needs to focus on making sure he doesn't. He should be asked to declare no plans for forcible annexation of any part of Ukraine, or any longer military stay in any part of Ukraine than absolutely necessary.
He should allow international monitors and mediators to help verify the protection of various populations within Ukraine and work towards a new deal with the Ukrainian government that will be respected by all, and restore Ukraine's full sovereignty in short order (while ensuring protection for Russian speakers there too).
He should continue to have his military refrain from the use of force, and also to stop trying to recruit defectors from the Ukrainian army into their general ranks.
No further Russian troop mobilizations or large-scale additional reinforcements of Russian positions in Ukraine should occur, either.
I still believe this crisis should be resolvable and would put money (though not give odds) that it will be.
Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow and research director in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings, and coauthor with Jim Steinberg of the forthcoming, "Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: Managing U.S.-China Security Relations" as well as coauthor of "Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy."