US Response to Crimea Echoes 2008 Georgia Crisis

March 7, 2014 Updated: March 9, 2014

Congress is moving to impose sanctions on Russia for its aggression against Ukraine. President Barack Obama said a planned March 16 referendum on Crimea joining Russia would violate international law. “We are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.”

The crisis echoes Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008. At that time, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said he would “protect the lives and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are located,” just as current Russian President Vladimir Putin said he intends to protect Russians in Crimea.

In 2008, Congress and President George W. Bush offered humanitarian aid to Georgia, and Bush said, “We hope Russia’s leaders will recognize that a future of cooperation and peace will benefit all parties.” His response was similar to Obama’s response to the current crisis, but the circumstances are not the same.

Georgia started the war when it shelled the South Ossetian capital on Aug. 7 and 8, 2008. In Ukraine, protesters unseated President Viktor Yanukovych, who allegedly used police and snipers to kill dozens of protesters.

Visa Restrictions

What is in place so far are visa restrictions on people who threaten Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial borders. These restrictions don’t directly target Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Financial Sanctions

Obama also signed an executive order allowing the United States to levy financial sanctions. In a statement, the White House said the penalties would target “those who are most directly involved in destabilizing Ukraine, including the military intervention in Crimea, and does not preclude further steps should the situation deteriorate.”

As early as January, Congress had threatened sanctions and asset freezes for individuals who targeted peaceful protesters, and had resolved that it “Supports the sovereign right of the people of Ukraine to chart an independent and democratic future for their country.”

In Brussels, the European Union announced it was suspending talks with Russia on an economic pact and on a visa deal in response to the Russian intervention in Crimea. EU leaders, like Obama, threatened further sanctions if Russia pushes ahead.

“I am confident that we are moving forward together, united in our determination to oppose actions that violate international law and to support the government and people of Ukraine,” Obama said.

Recognize New Government

Senior Obama administration officials said penalties will deepen significantly if Russia presses into areas of eastern Ukraine. The officials also indicated that the penalties could be ratcheted down if Russia pulls back its troops in Crimea and recognizes Ukraine’s new government.

“We call on Russia to take the opportunity before it to resolve this crisis through direct and immediate dialogue with the government of Ukraine,” the White House statement read.