President Barack Obama asked Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday afternoon to return his troops to their barracks and to remove his forces from Ukraine.
However, Obama didn’t threaten or promise significant retaliation if Putin continued his advance into the majority-Russian parts of the Ukraine, according to a White House statement about their 90-minute phone call.
“If Russia has concerns about the treatment of ethnic Russian and minority populations in Ukraine, the appropriate way to address them is peacefully through direct engagement with the government of Ukraine and through the dispatch of international observers under the auspices of the United Nations,” Obama told Putin, according to the White House statement.
A continued advanced by Russia’s T-90 tanks, Mi-24 attack helicopters, BTR-90 troop carriers and paratroop battalions would “negatively impact Russia’s standing in the international community,” the statement threatened.
The U.S. “will urgently consult with allies and partners… suspend upcoming participation in preparatory meetings for the [upcoming] G-8” economic summit in southern Russia, the statement said.
The Russian intervention also may “lead to greater political and economic isolation,” the statement said.
Obama’s options in the crisis are few. His international credibility is weak, the U.S. economy is stalled, his poll ratings are low and the U.S. public does not want to get involved in a war with Russia.
The Saturday call and the statement came the same day that Obama symbolically washed his hands of Ukraine by having his deputies announce to the media that he had skipped a Saturday national security council meeting on the Russian invasion.
“The president’s national security team met today to receive an update on the situation in Ukraine and discuss potential policy options,” a White House official told reporters Saturday.
Obama didn’t attend the meeting, which was a few minutes walk away from his residence, but did get an status report from his national security advisor, Susan Rice.
Attendees at the meeting included the Secretary of Defense, the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Vice President Joe Biden also stayed away, but joined via by teleconference.
On Saturday, Russia’s parliament approved the use of force in the Ukraine, but it isn’t clear if Putin plans to advance beyond Crimea, or the majority-Russian districts in eastern Ukraine.
The signal of presidential priorities followed his actions on Friday, when he sandwiched a brief and vague presidential statement about the invasion between a previously scheduled exhibition of teenagers’ movies in the White House and a political rally at nearby hotel.
In his Friday statement, Obama threatened unnamed “costs” if Russia were to continue advancing in the Russian-majority eastern, Crimea and southern sections of Ukraine, an independent democracy of 46 million people that broke away from the Soviet Union 23 years ago, in 1991.
Immediately after the statement, he drove a short distance to the Democratic rally, which was held in a nearby hotel.
“Well, it’s Friday. It’s after 5:00,” Obama joked to Democratic supporters as he began a campaign-style rally. “So this is now officially happy hour with the Democratic Party. I can do that. It is an executive action. I have the authority.”
He did not mention Russia or the Ukraine in his speech, which portrayed progressive regulation of the economy as a foundation for personal freedom.
“Freedom is the peace of mind of knowing that if you got sick, you won’t lose everything,” he said. “Freedom is signing for that new home and knowing it can’t be taken from you because you actually understand what you’re signing…. [or] getting that new credit card and knowing the stakes and understanding how you’re going to manage it.”
Obama’s quick departure from the foreign policy problem to his campaign trail matches his decision in September 2012 to attend a fund-raiser in Las Vegas the day after jihadis killed four Americans — including an ambassador at a U.S. diplomatic compound inBenghazi, Libya.
Afterwards, Obama and his aides minimized the political damage from the attack by claiming the assault was provoked by a video critical of Islam that had been produced in California by a Egyptian immigrant.
Obama also quickly reversed himself after threatening to strike Russia’s ally, Syria, last fall following a chemical weapons attack.
Also, Obama quickly fled from the crisis in the former U.S. ally of Egypt, following the Egyptian military’s removal of the Muslim Brotherhood government in a July 2013 coup. Prior to the popular coup, Obama had sought to support the elected radical Islamic government.
On Saturday, Obama also spoke to the leaders in the Canada and France. They “pledged to work together on a package of support and assistance to help Ukraine as it pursues reforms and stabilizes its economy,” said a White House statement.
The public’s trust in Obama’s handing of foreign policy is low.
But the rating is unlikely to shift votes in the November midterm election.
For example, a February poll by McClatchy-Marist of 1,197 adults showed that independents gives him 39 percent approval, 52 percent disapproval, rating on foreign policy.
Democrats give him a relatively poor 73 percent rating, and Republicans give him a 10 percent rating.
In recent weeks, Obama has used disputes over rights for gays in Russia to pump up his support among U.S. progressives. For example, he used an interview on the Jay Leno show to criticize Putin’s policy towards activists of rights for gays, and he sent several gay or lesbian athletes to represent the U.S. at the winter Olympics games in Sochi.
It is unclear if Obama will boost that issue, or let it slide, during the next few weeks.
The Saturday statement about the 90-minute conversation with Putin did not mention rights for gays.