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Obama's first steps are small but significant

Wednesday, March 19, 2014 - Updated: 7:15 AM

There are unmistakable echoes of the Cold War in the air. President Barack Obama levied economic sanctions against Russia this week in retaliation for its aggression in Ukraine, and warned Russian President Vladimir Putin to steer clear of our NATO allies.

With Putin reverting to the superpower chess game by flexing Russia's military muscle in Crimea, Obama had to respond. He took a few small but significant steps before Putin's move to officially annex Crimea. The people there voted overwhelmingly Sunday to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

By surgically targeting a handful of rich, powerful Putin cronies in Russia and Ukraine for sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, Obama is trying to financially penalize Russia for its aggression without inflicting collateral damage on our European allies who rely on Russian natural gas. The scramble for an alternative supply could drive up prices. The president stopped short of the stronger tactic of impeding Russia transactions in global financial markets.

And by dispatching Vice President Joe Biden to meet this week with nervous NATO members Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Obama signaled that Putin shouldn't force NATO to act by moving on any former members of the Soviet Union that are now allies of the West. The U.S. and Europe must send Putin a clear message of unity.

Obama left the door open for diplomacy and signaled the ways Putin can de-escalate tensions: Pull Russian forces back to their bases in Crimea, accept the deployment of international monitors in the area, and engage in a dialogue with the Ukrainian government.

Putin's game is to opportunistically reassert control over pieces of the old Soviet empire, as he did with Georgia in 2008. Nobody's talking about military action to thwart him in Ukraine. But his aggression must not be cost-free.

-- Newsday


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