CHICAGO — When Russian-speaking troops marched through the Crimean peninsula in February, it marked a dramatic change in relations between the United States and its one-time Cold War adversary.
Some compare the situation to what President Jimmy Carter faced in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, plunging the already contentious U.S.-Soviet relationship into a deep freeze.
But while the situation in Ukraine is reminiscent of the foreign policy challenges confronting Carter and other American presidents during the Cold War, experts say there are important differences.
During President Barack Obama’s first term, his administration worked to improve relations with Russia by establishing a “reset” policy with Moscow, a relationship strained by Russian military action in neighboring Georgia in 2008.
University of Chicago political science professor Stanislav Markus says President Obama’s “reset” policy showed initial signs of progress.
“Given that thaw in the background, I think there were hopes in the administration that the relations with Russia could get back on a more positive track,” he said.
But Markus says much of that thaw froze again in 2012, when Russian President Vladimir Putin returned to power. Any progress to improve relations, he says, evaporated with the Russian annexation of Crimea.
“I think it did catch many people in the administration by surprise given, of course, the reset policy Obama tried to promote,” he said.
As Russia consolidated its hold on Crimea, the Obama administration's “reset” policy was roundly criticized by opposition Republican lawmakers, such as Senator John McCain, who called Obama’s previous approach toward Russia “naïve.”
It is criticism familiar to former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, who was faced with similar challenges when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
“I withdrew my ambassador," he said. "I broke diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. I declared a grain embargo against them. I supported the Congress and the Olympic Committee in withholding our contestants from the 1980 Olympics.”
But much has changed in the 35 years since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. With the end of the Cold War and increased economic ties between Russia and the rest of the world, Carter concedes the options before President Obama to counter Russian aggression in Crimea today are much more limited.
“Threatening an embargo, even threatening military action, in my opinion, would not have deterred Putin from doing that,” he said.
Markus says, “Crippling the economy by, say, imposing certain embargoes on Russian energy, which obviously a lot of Russian state revenue depends on energy exports, that would have an impact on the Russian people which automatically would be interpreted in Russia as actually confirming what Putin has been saying all along, that a lot of people in the West have not left the past behind, have not left the Cold War behind, they want Russia to be on its knees.”
As Ukraine prepares for a presidential election May 25, Carter says he believes Putin will bolster efforts to influence those living geographically and ideologically close to Russia, but doubts he plans further military action in Ukraine.
“He announced that he would not take military action against eastern Ukraine, and I don't think he will," said Carter. "The United States ought to be very forceful along with our allies in telling Putin, "If you do that, there will be very serious consequences.”
U.S. military commanders in Europe estimate an additional 40,000 Russian troops are massed along the Ukrainian border. While President Carter threatened to use U.S. military force as a way to contain Soviet ambitions beyond Afghanistan in 1979, Obama has said there is no military solution to the deepening crisis in Ukraine.