WASHINGTON -- For all his bluster and bravado, President Vladimir Putin's assurance Tuesday that Russia does not plan, at least for now, to seize eastern Ukraine suggested a possible path forward in the geopolitical crisis that has captivated the world. Global markets reacted with relief, and the White House with cautious optimism.
But the development presented a tricky conundrum for President Barack Obama and his European allies. Even if Russia does leave eastern Ukraine alone and avoids escalating its military intervention, can it effectively freeze in place its occupation of the Crimean Peninsula? Would the United States and Europe be forced to tacitly accept that, or could they find a way to roll it back -- and, if so, at what price?
Ever since Russian forces took control of Crimea, Mr. Obama's aides have privately conceded that reversing the occupation would be difficult, if not impossible, in the short run and focused their energy on drawing a line to prevent Mr. Putin from going further. If Crimea in coming weeks remains cordoned off, it will then require a concerted effort to force Russia to pull back troops, an effort that could divide the United States from European allies, who may be more willing to live with the new status quo.
For the moment, the White House was focused on preventing the confrontation from escalating and, while discouraged by Mr. Putin's bellicosity and justification of his actions, U.S. officials took some solace that he said he saw no need at this point for intervention in Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine. They also were encouraged by Mr. Putin's seeming acceptance of new elections in May as a way to legitimize a new Ukrainian government.
Mr. Obama, who consulted by phone Tuesday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel while Secretary of State John Kerry visited Kiev, told reporters that some had interpreted Mr. Putin's remarks to mean that he "is pausing for a moment and reflecting on what's happened."
Others cautioned against reading too much into Mr. Putin's statements. Ivo Daalder, Mr. Obama's first ambassador to NATO, said: "It would be a mistake on our part to look at what he's saying and think this crisis is almost over, [as in] 'OK, we've lost Crimea, but the rest of the country is with us.' " He continued: "Crimea is a big deal. It means a country can be invaded, and a big piece of it can be taken away with no price. But two, this isn't just about Crimea. This is about who is ultimately in control of Ukraine."
The situation remained tense, as Obama administration officials moved forward with plans for sanctions that could be imposed by the United States and, they hoped, in conjunction with European allies. The administration is developing plans for actions that would escalate over time if Russia continued to leave forces in place in Crimea, an autonomous region of Ukraine.
Mr. Obama has authority to take several steps without new legislation from Congress. For starters, under a law called the Magnitsky Act, the State Department has already drafted a list of Russians tied to human rights abuses whom it refrained from imposing sanctions on recently. The administration could promptly ban those Russians from traveling to the United States and freeze any assets in this country.
The president also has the power under existing Syria sanctions to go after Russian individuals and institutions that have been involved in sending arms to help President Bashar Assad crush the rebellion there. The administration had previously held back on such actions while trying to work with Russia to resolve the Syrian civil war, but if applied, they could cut off Russian banks from financial institutions in Europe.
Mr. Obama could also sign an executive order creating another set of sanctions specifically against Russian officials and organizations blamed for creating instability in Ukraine and violating its sovereignty. In theory, that could include everyone up to Mr. Putin himself, but officials indicated that they would not target him -- at least initially -- and would instead work their way up the chain of command.