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Editorial: U.S. should avoid ultimatums on Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gestures while

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gestures while speaking at a press conference at the end of the Iranian nuclear talks in Geneva on Nov. 10, 2013. Credit: AP

When Secretary of State John Kerry touches down in Ukraine Tuesday, he must avoid delivering ultimatums to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States is not prepared to enforce. Promising consequences and then not delivering would be the surest way to embolden Putin and further undermine the United States' credibility and influence in the world.

The truth is there is little President Barack Obama can do to compel Putin to order Russian troops back to their bases in Crimea and to move no deeper into Ukraine. U.S. military action in Russia's backyard is out of the question. Unlike Putin, the United States has no vital national interest at stake, and the American public's tolerance for intervention has been exhausted by a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet the United States and its allies do have a modicum of diplomatic and economic muscle that they should flex. NATO has condemned Russia's aggressive military posture in the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. The G-7, a forum of the world's leading industrialized democracies, also condemned Russia's intervention, and suspended preparations for a G-8 summit (the G-7 plus Russia) slated for June in Sochi. Unless Putin stands down, he risks seeing Russia booted out of the G-8 and incurring sanctions that could include suspending trade between Russia and the West, and freezing Russians' foreign bank accounts.

Kerry should make it clear that the West will be united in isolating Russia unless Putin respects his neighbor's sovereignty despite the crisis ignited 10 days ago when public protests prompted Ukrainian President and Russian puppet Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country.

The people of Ukraine should be free to decide their nation's future. But in supporting their pursuit of that goal, the only red lines Obama should draw are those he can police.