Obama's toughest Ukraine task: A united front

“We are examining a whole series of steps — economic, diplomatic — that will isolate Russia,” Obama said Monday in the Oval Office ahead of a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Over time, this will be a costly proposition for Russia.”

For all Obama’s hopes of creating an economic threat, there are relatively few trade or productive diplomatic ties between the United States and Russia. He’s largely dependent on being listened to by the world’s leaders, populations, businesses and international organizations, from the European Union to the World Trade Organization.

“The No. 1 test for the president will be in enforcing some kind of diplomatic and economic pressure on Putin, and whether the allies, the EU and NATO stay united,” said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, one of President Bill Clinton’s U.N. ambassadors. “He’ll keep everybody together publicly and symbolically. It’ll be the degree that some of the allies enforce the existing penalties and sanctions and any other potential costs to Russia.”

As the relationship with Russia has publicly collapsed over the past year, American officials have eagerly pointed out that the two countries remain close collaborators on counterterrorism and on supplying troops in Afghanistan. That’s about it, though, leaving the administration responding now in an environment shaped by the continued fallout from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the larger intractability of the Arab world and Putin’s lack of concern for international rules.