| RIYADH, March 29
RIYADH, March 29 U.S. President Barack Obama
ended a four-nation foreign trip on Saturday at the same point
that he began it, still facing great uncertainty about a
diplomatic way out of the Ukraine crisis.
His diplomatic consultations at The Hague, Brussels and Rome
over the past week all resulted in a strong show of unity
between the United States and Europe that Russia must face
consequences should it move against southern or eastern Ukraine.
But whether European allies would be able to stomach the
type of crippling sanctions required to undermine the Russian
economy in a major way remained an open question, since some of
their own economies would be jolted as well.
A late-night phone call on Friday between Obama and Russian
President Vladimir Putin offered the possibility that Russia
might be willing to negotiate a diplomatic outcome.
But the news was greeted warily by U.S. officials who
wondered if Putin really wants to make a deal.
Obama talked to Putin just after meeting Saudi King Abdullah
where the civil war in Syria, another major bone of contention
between the United States and Russia, was a main topic of
U.S. officials now will "see whether Russians are serious
about diplomacy" on Ukraine, was how one senior Obama
administration official described the aftermath of the phone
Not lost on them was that the Russian government had assured
the West it would make no move against the Crimea region of
southern Ukraine. And then it did.
Now, with as many as 40,000 Russian troops massed on
Ukraine's border, U.S. officials are increasingly concerned.
In addition, the Russian statement on the Putin-Obama phone
call said the Russian president raised concerns about
Transnistria, the Russian-majority section of Moldova.
At the heart of subsequent negotiations expected by U.S.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister
Sergei Lavrov is a U.S. diplomatic "off-ramp".
In it, international monitors would be deployed to Ukraine
to assure ethnic Russians are safe, there would be a pull back
of Russian forces, and a direct Russia-Ukraine dialogue.
To some extent U.S. officials are still guessing at Putin's
intentions in the region. During a visit to The Hague, Obama
said Russia was a "regional power" looking to exert influence in
"I think he's been willing to show a deeply held grievance
about what he considers to be the loss of the Soviet Union,"
Obama told CBS News in an interview on Friday.
"I think there's a strong sense of Russian nationalism and a
sense that somehow the West has taken advantage of Russia in the
past and that he wants to in some fashion, you know, reverse
that or make up for that."
Part of Obama's challenge is not just to convince the
Europeans the need for strong action but to persuade Americans
at home why they should be interested about what happens in a
distant part of the world.
A CBS News poll taken in recent days said 56 percent of
Americans approve of sanctions enacted thus far by the United
States and European nations, but 65 percent do not think the
U.S. should provide military aid and weapons to Ukraine.
In addition, 57 percent said the United States does not have
a responsibility to do something about Ukraine.
Obama himself said he could understand why people "might
decide to look the other way," but that the "international
order" must be protected.
(Editing by Sophie Hares)