National Security

The Day After

Crimea has voted to secede from Ukraine. The Obama administration is warning Russia not to annex the breakaway region. What happens if Vladimir Putin does so anyway?

The Obama administration and its allies couldn't prevent an overwhelming majority of Crimea's residents from voting to secede from Ukraine. It's looking increasingly likely that they also won't be able to prevent Russian strongman Vladimir Putin from annexing the restive Ukrainian province.

Western powers spent much of the last week asking Putin and Crimea's new pro-Russian government to cancel the secession referendum, but the appeals failed and residents of Crimea turned out in droves Sunday to vote. There had never been much doubt about what the outcome would be in the pro-Russian peninsula of Ukraine, but the margins were still startling: with 50 percent of the votes counted, more than 95 percent of voters opted to join Russia and secede from Ukraine, according to local Crimean election officials. The officials said 80 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast ballots.

In separate statements Sunday, the United States and European Union called the vote illegal and refused to recognize its results. "This referendum is contrary to Ukraine's constitution, and the international community will not recognize the results of a poll administered under threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention that violates international law," said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

In a statement from all 28 member states, the E.U. called the vote "illegal' and called on Russia to return its troops to their barracks. "The European Union has a special responsibility for peace, stability and prosperity on the European continent and will continue pursuing these objectives using all available channels," read the statement.

Russia's State Duma has said it will discuss whether to annex Crimea, making it a "federal subject" of the Russian Federation, on March 21. If Moscow decides to move ahead, Washington and its allies have already said they won't recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea. As with Russia's recognition of the separatist Georgian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, Crimea's absorption into Russia is likely to be contested by the international community for years, if not decades, to come.

President Obama emphasized his refusal to accept Russian control over Crimea during a tense Sunday phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Obama, according to a later White House statement, said the referendum "would never be recognized by the United States and the international community" and that a clear path toward resolving the crisis diplomatically remains in play. U.S. officials hoped to broker a deal giving Crimea wide autonomy under Kiev, a diplomatic "off ramp" rejected by a number of Crimean voters today. The referendum offered voters the choice of absorption into Russia or remaining in Ukraine but with greater autonomy. According to local officials, voters sided overwhelmingly with joining Russia.

A number of hawks in Congress reacted angrily to the days events and stepped up calls for imposing tougher economic sanctions against Russian officials and businesses. "No more reset buttons. No more ‘Tell Vladimir I'll be more flexible,'" Sen. John McCain told CNN. "Treat him for what he is -- an individual who believes in restoring the old Russian empire."

The Obama administration and its European allies are preparing to sanction Russia as early as Monday, beginning with asset freezes and visa bans targeting members of Putin's inner circle and several top Russian oligarchs. Congress is also drafting a hard-hitting sanctions bill, but its fate remains uncertain because of a dispute over an unrelated provision about reforming the International Monetary Fund. "The sanctions that we passed out of the Foreign Relations Committee are very biting, one of a kind," Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the panel, told Fox News. He referred to a new sanctions bill passed by the committee last week that has yet to be voted on by the entire Senate.

But many observers note that U.S. economic sanctions alone are unlikely to influence Putin or Russia's elite governing class given the relatively small amount of annual trade between the two countries. EU sanctions, on the other hand, could deliver a powerful blow to Russia, but could also destabilize Europe's post-recession economies.

Moscow, meanwhile, is using thousands of its troops to establish facts on the ground in Crimea, just as it did in Georgia several years ago. In 2008, Georgian troops fought a series of low-level skirmishes with separatist forces in the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Russia intervened on behalf of the separatists and pushed the Georgian forces out. Tbilisi and Moscow severed their diplomatic ties, and South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been occupied by Russian forces ever since.

In a recent interview with FP, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili acknowledged that the provinces would remain de facto parts of Russia until their residents decided their lives would be better as part of Georgia. Unlike his predecessor, he didn't speak of reconquering the breakaway regions, a reflection of the fact that Russia has been tightening, not loosening, its control over the regions.

Garibashvili said that Russian forces have begun building 30 miles of barbed wire fencing along the border with South Ossetia. The work stopped in December, weeks before the start of the Sochi Olympics. When the games ended, the work resumed. "That's crazy, right?" Garibashvili asked in the interview.

Crazy or not, the residents of Crimea have willingly chosen to join Putin's Russia. And rhetoric aside, it's far from clear that the West will manage to preserve Ukraine's territorial integrity any more successfully than it did with Georgia's.

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Crude Reality

Iran's oil exports keep rising. Is that cause for concern?

Iran is exporting more oil than it did last year, and in greater amounts than the limit the United States placed on exports under the on-going negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, according to the latest oil market data.

But conflicting and complicated data about oil sales make it hard to present black-and-white arguments about whether the limited relief given to Iran as part of the nuclear negotiations agreed last November is providing a lifeline to Tehran or not. Iran hawks point to rising oil exports to argue that the United States is giving away negotiating leverage; the Obama administration says it is comfortable with Iran's current exports and is focused on the six-month talks.

The latest data come just ahead of the next round of high-level talks between Iran and six major powers, slated for next week in Vienna. Friday's monthly oil market report by the International Energy Agency shows Iranian oil exports reaching a one-year peak of about 1.4 million barrels a day in February, up from 1.1 million barrels a day in 2013. The Obama administration said it aims to limit Iranian oil exports to about 1 million barrels a day under the limited sanctions relief agreed to as part of the nuclear negotiations.

The problem is that monthly oil-market data fluctuate sharply and are constantly revised, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the strength of Iran's oil sector or U.S. efforts to rein it in. Critics who fear that sanctions relief is easing the economic stranglehold on Tehran point to oil sales as a worrisome indicator.

"The increase in Iranian oil exports is further evidence that countries may now be more willing to test the will of the Obama administration in enforcing oil sanctions," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a group that has spearheaded efforts in Washington to tighten economic pressure on Iran. A Senate bill that would ratchet up sanctions against Iran has not yet come to the floor and isn't likely to, given a near-certain White House veto.

"State and Treasury officials have their work cut out for them between now and July to prevent Tehran from driving an oil tanker through the sanctions regime," Dubowitz added. Since November, U.S. officials say they have been doing precisely that, meeting with the small number of countries that are entitled to import Iranian oil and pressing them to keep their imports in the first half of this year at 2013 levels.

While oil export data varies month-to-month, there are signs that the administration's diplomatic offensive is paying dividends. India, for example, bought a lot more Iranian oil in January than it was buying the year before: about 415,000 barrels a day, according to the latest IEA estimate.

U.S. officials went to New Delhi to impress upon the government that it needed to cut back to last year's import levels. Reuters reported last week that the Indian government said it would reduce its  purchases through the first half of the year. And according to the latest IEA report, India cut back sharply on Iranian oil imports in February, to about 175,000 barrels a day, below the amount it imported in late 2013, or around 200,000 barrels a day.

But India also illustrates part of the problem with the IEA's monthly market report. Initially, the IEA estimated that India had imported only about 240,000 barrels per day in January, not far above its 2013 average. But U.S. officials, who track a range of oil market data and customs information from importing countries, were already looking at Indian purchases with growing alarm. In the end, the IEA revised upward its estimate of India's January purchases from Iran to 415,000 barrels a day.

China is another big importer of Iranian oil that presents a challenge for market watchers and U.S. officials. The IEA on Friday revised downward its initial January estimate of Chinese imports of Iranian oil. And in the latest release, the IEA said China had further cut Iranian purchases in February from about 565,000 barrels a day to 385,000 barrels a day.

But the IEA also said that the total picture of Chinese imports is muddy because there are several oil tankers off the coast that haven't unloaded, plus notable volumes of oil that could be entering the Chinese market via Indonesia. "As a result, Chinese imports are likely to be revised upward next month on final data," the IEA said.

U.S. officials say they have had constructive conversations with Chinese officials regarding Iranian oil purchases, and stress that China is a partner in the joint plan of agreement reached last November. That means that, unlike the past two years, when Beijing railed against what it called "unilateral" U.S. sanctions on Iran, China is part of the current agreement to cap Iran's oil trade, officials said.

Finally, the question of just how much "oil" Iran is exporting depends on what is meant by "oil." Crude oil, the heavier liquid pumped out of reservoirs, is specifically targeted by U.S. sanctions. Condensates, which are lighter liquid hydrocarbons usually derived from natural gas, aren't.

But the IEA oil figures lump together crude oil and condensates, which make Iran's export totals seem higher than the cap the U.S. wants to impose. "Higher Iranian imports in recent months reflect, in large part, increased sales of condensates to Asian buyers," the IEA said.

U.S. officials, for their part, focus on the crude oil totals, the subject of sanctions, and believe their patient diplomacy is paying off.

"For now, we are comfortable with where things are," said a senior administration official.

Dieter Nagl - AFP - Getty