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Obama's squeeze box: Can Vladimir Putin sleep at night?

This post originally appeared on National Journal.

"It's sort of like an accordion."

That was White House press secretary Jay Carney's description of economic sanctions the administration might impose on nefarious Russians or Ukrainian kleptocrats at the center of the Crimean crisis.

President Obama is all about flexibility. Of course, that is a particularly nagging word in regard to Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It reminds conservative critics of Obama's March 2012 explanation to outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have "more flexibility" to deal with Russia after winning reelection. Medvedev, who kept the presidential seat warm for Putin's return, vowed to "transmit this information to Vladimir."

The context was U.S.-Russian disagreements over missile-defense sites in Europe, but they echo unhelpfully for Obama now. They make Obama sound needlessly pliable. And the early stages of the Crimean saga, even White House loyalists agree, did little to convey action, passion, or strength.

Behind-the-scenes maneuvering with European allies and pallid, placeholder statements about the primacy of democracy and sovereignty rarely do (see, Bush, George W., and Georgia.) The big difference--hundreds were killed and thousands were injured in Georgia. Since Putin's troops have arrived in Crimea--no deaths and no injuries. Only a lot of sneering.

But even as Obama moves incrementally toward action, the concept of flexibility returns. His executive order establishing a "framework" for economic sanctions provides no end of it. Frameworks sound rigid but move like an accordion. They can expand or contract based on circumstances, geopolitical calculations, and gumption.

As The Who sang in 1975, economic sanctions of the kind Obama has fashioned can "go in and out and in and out." Flexibly. As a tool of statecraft, this stanza from the song "Mama's Got a Squeeze Box," sounds appropriate.

Well the kids don't eat

And the dog can't sleep

There's no escape from the music

In the whole damn street

What Obama does or does not do with the now-threatened sanctions and how Putin reacts will form the diplomatic back-beat to the Crimean standoff (and let's face it, as an earworm "Squeezebox" beats the hell out of all the silly cable TV "crisis" dirges).

Obama's accordion of sanctions can "go in and out" as he pleases, which is not to suggest Obama is the bandmaster in Ukraine (more on that in a minute). Obama could levy sanctions against one Russian, 100 Russians, or no Russians. He could sanction Putin. He could sanction Victor Yanukovych, who used to be Ukraine's president before he abdicated and whose assets the European Union sought to freeze on Thursday. Or Obama could wait and do nothing. Flexibly, he could say the threat of sanctions remains potent in its potentiality.

What's crucial to understand about the go-slow approach is there is evidence to suggest it's working or--at minimum--isn't the catastrophe critics have alleged. Even the implied threat of accordion-like sanctions has yielded results. Obama announced the sanctions and visa revocations, and they did not chill ongoing talks between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Later in the day, Obama and Putin talked for an hour. That means Putin chose to negotiate instead of escalate.

In Thursday's phone conversation, Obama for the second time in less than a week outlined a possible resolution in Crimea: Russian troops return to their treaty-legitimized bases, Putin agrees to allow international observers into Crimea, and Russia abandons a secessionist referendum and commits to the global coalition backing the May 26 presidential election. Obama first raised this more generally in his 90-minute phone call Saturday with Putin. That both leaders revisited the topic and the Kremlin did not denounce it after Thursday's call suggests it's a live option.

Obama knows his options are limited but also that international pressure gathers incrementally, if it gathers at all. Obama ran as an internationalist specializing in the subtle suasion of soft power. That this approach contrasts unhelpfully (at least in terms of optics and among some pundits) with Putin's nationalist paranoia and antidemocratic tendencies means nothing to Obama. There are no U.S. military options, merely military muscle flexing in the general neighborhood (hello, Baltic States and Poland).

Now, to the question of who is calling the tune in Crimea.

Obama has calculated from the start that Putin looks stronger than he actually is and his military foray has real and practical limits. Putin entered the only region of Ukraine where there was no risk of military confrontation or misunderstanding--Crimea. From that perch, Obama and his team believe Putin is improvising as much as he is strategizing. The goal, they assume, is that Putin wants to use the threat of an ad hoc and illegal annexing of Crimea to exert some influence over Ukraine's new political future and keep his Black Sea fleet in a safe, warm-water port. This gambit is all that's left to Putin, the White House believes, after having conspicuously and embarrassingly lost Ukraine as a client-state with a genuinely pliable puppet president.

The White House believes Putin cares more about Russia's economic health and diplomatic clout than it does about Crimea. Other analysts disagree. This assumption drives Obama's policy. Yes, Putin has changed the facts on the ground in Crimea--but only by jeopardizing the balance sheets of Russian oligarchs and risking international isolation. Even China, which might have been assumed to be nominally supportive, has been equivocal. (Beijing, after all, has deep economic ties with Ukraine and abhors interference in internal matters.) Putin's about to lose his G-8 summit in Sochi, and the White House, senior officials tell me, is now pushing for an alternate G-7 summit to undercut Putin's cherished standing among the world's leading economies.

And Russia will have some explaining to do if the Crimea crisis is still going and 58 nations convene in The Hague for the Nuclear Security Summit and Putin will have violated one of the signature post-Cold War nonproliferation agreements--the Budapest Memorandum.

Under that agreement, Ukraine gave up its entire nuclear stockpile (then the world's third largest) in exchange for a promise from Russia and the United States that neither nation will interfere with it economically or attempt to intimidate it politically. This may sound like a lot of diplomatic fluff, but Russia, which retains formidable nuclear stockpiles, craves a seat at the nonproliferation table--if for no other reason that it reminds other nations to respect/fear Russia's arsenal.

Yes, flexibility is a word that works against Obama. Accordion-like sanctions look and sound puny. Putin's troops are patrolling Crimea illegally and controlling local television--also illegally. Troops and paramilitary sympathizers menace outsiders. This has the potential to explode. But that's been true for days, and it hasn't. Meanwhile, Putin continues talking, not escalating.

And that might suggest Obama's squeeze box is keeping Putin up at night.

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