Republicans say President Barack Obama has been too passive in responding to the crisis in Ukraine, with some even suggesting he projects a weakness in foreign affairs that emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin to advance militarily into that country.
Many GOP lawmakers made similar calls for tougher action when Russia invaded Georgia, another former Soviet republic, back in 2008. Putin, who was prime minister at the time, ignored western condemnation and pushed forward. Six years later, Russia has yet to fulfill its obligations under the cease-fire agreement, including the withdrawal of forces and free access for humanitarian assistance.
Obama is in a tough spot. Following costly, years-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans have shown little willingness to engage militarily overseas. But the president also has to make clear that he isn't just issuing empty threats and that he won't stand for Russian aggression, especially after expending so much political capital in his first term trying to "reset" relations with Russia.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told CNN on Sunday that Obama should “stop going on television and trying to threaten thugs and dictators.” Graham added that “Every time the president goes on national television and threatens Putin or anyone like Putin, everybody’s eyes roll, including mine. We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers told Fox News that “Putin is playing chess and I think we’re playing marbles.” The Michigan congressman added that the Russians have been “running circles around us” in negotiations on issues like missile defense and Syria.
And Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona -- Obama's 2008 general election opponent and a frequent critic of the president's foreign policy – said in a statement that he is “deeply concerned” that Russia’s presence in Ukraine could grow if Obama does not go into detail about what exactly he’s going to do.
"President Obama said that Russia would face ‘costs’ if it intervened militarily in Ukraine,” McCain said. “It is now essential for the President to articulate exactly what those costs will be and take steps urgently to impose them.”
Obama has hewed closely to public opinion on matters of foreign policy. In 2011, he delivered remarks on pulling troops from Iraq, insisting it reflected a "larger transition" and that "the tide of war is receding." And when Obama wanted to use airstrikes to stop the Syrian regime from using chemical weapons, polls showed the majority of Americans were opposed to using military action.
Of course, not doing enough has consequences, too. The last thing Obama wants to be viewed as is feckless, either at home or abroad. Former President Jimmy Carter found that out the hard way in the late 1970s when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, a clear signal that Moscow viewed the U.S. as weak following Vietnam and the Iran hostage crisis. That perception of weakness was one of many reasons voters booted Carter after one term.
“President Obama has led a foreign policy based more on how he thinks the world should operate than on reality,” the Post wrote. “As Mr. Putin ponders whether to advance further -- into eastern Ukraine, say -- he will measure the seriousness of U.S. and allied actions, not their statements,” the editorial added.
“The only concrete U.S. action was to suspend participation in preparations for June's G-8 summit in Sochi. Seriously? Mr. Obama and every Western leader ought to immediately pull the plug on that junket and oust Russia from the club of democracies,” wrote the Journal.
The White House said on Saturday that Obama spoke to Putin on the phone for 90 minutes and expressed his “deep concern” over Russia’s "violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The commander-in-chief also called on Putin to pull back Russian forces, which have reportedly seized the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine. The White House also said the U.S. will suspend its upcoming participation in preparatory meetings for the G-8 summit taking place in Sochi in June and that “Russia’s continued violation of international law will lead to greater political and economic isolation.”
The U.S. State department said on Monday that it was preparing sanctions against Russia and will not hesitate to use them if Moscow does not change its course. “These reports today of threats of force against Ukrainian military installations would, if true, in our view constitute a dangerous escalation of the situation for which we would hold Russia directly responsible,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on a conference call with reporters.
Before meeting at the White House to discuss Iran and Middle East peace efforts with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama said the U.S. and its allies all agree that Russia broke international law by going into Ukraine. He said the U.S. was looking into what actions it could take to "isolate Russia" if Putin continues on his same course.
The interim Ukrainian government, meanwhile, is mobilizing its armed forces. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is flying to Kiev on Tuesday to support Ukraine.
Republicans have put forth their own proposals.
“Georgia is trying to seek NATO admission through the membership action plan. Let’s accelerate Georgia’s admission into NATO,” said Graham. “We abandoned our missile defense agreements with them to protect Europe from a rogue missile attack coming out of the Mid East. Russia backed Obama down. If I were President Obama, I would reengage Poland and the Czech Republic regarding missile defense.”
McCain has called on the U.S. to give economic aid to Ukraine and to install U.S. missiles in the Czech Republican. And Rogers said the White House should not attend the G-8 summit and should seek international sanctions.