Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin

Putin is determined to assert Russia’s place as a major power, despite Obama’s warnings. | AP Photo


3/1/14 4:53 PM EST Updated: 3/2/14 10:53 AM EST

President Barack Obama couldn’t have been clearer when he warned Russia not to send troops into Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin couldn’t have been clearer in his response: Watch me.

And just like that, an already toxic relationship got even worse, and the two countries — and the rest of the world — veered closer to an unprecedented showdown.

The two leaders spoke Saturday for 90 minutes about the situation in Ukraine, the White House said.

Obama started his presidency pushing for a “reset” in Russian relations. Instead, Putin has essentially pulled the plug.

Critics have been complaining for years that Obama hasn’t figured out what to do about Putin, but it’s not clear there’s figuring out to do.

“I don’t think it’s a question of not being able to understand Putin,” said Steve Pifer, one of President Bill Clinton’s ambassadors to the Ukraine. “It’s a question of what tools do you have to respond.”

“Part of the problem is here is the strength of the motivations on the Russian side,” Pifer added. Putin “cares a whole lot more about losing Ukraine than the West cares about keeping it.”

When Obama issued his warning at the White House late Friday, he was relying, as he said, only on reports of troop movements in Crimea. Many of those were coming from the Ukrainian prime minister, who’d spent the day demanding Russia recall its forces, both in public statements and in an afternoon phone conversation with Vice President Joe Biden.

The White House woke up Saturday morning to more definitive news: Putin asked for, and received, approval from Parliament for “using the armed forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine pending the normalization of the socio-political situation in that country,” according to an Associated Press translation of his request. The upper house of Parliament also recommended the recall of the Russian ambassador to the United States in retaliation for Obama’s comments Friday.

For hours after the Parliament vote Saturday, the White House stayed silent, trying to figure out what to do next. For now, no one seems to know the answer, though after a national security team meeting Saturday afternoon that a White House official said Obama did not attend but Biden joined by video conference from Arizona, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke with his Russian counterpart Saturday to talk about the lack of American military movement.

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