New Russia sanctions: Who's calling the shots, the US or Europe?

The US announced restrictions on more individual Russians Monday, but refrained from imposing economic sector-wide sanctions. Critics say Europe would follow a bolder American lead.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama gestures as he speaks during a joint news conference with South Korean President Park Geun-hye (not pictured) at the Blue House, Friday, April 25, 2014, in Seoul, South Korea. Obama made clear in remarks over the weekend that the US would not move ahead on its own on broader Russia sanctions.

When it comes to Western sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine, is the Obama administration driving the policy – or allowing a much more reticent European Union to impose a "go slow" approach?

The United States Monday banned visas for and froze the assets of a new list of Russians the Treasury Department says are part of President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, in what is the third round of US-imposed sanctions on Russians in the three-month-old crisis in Ukraine.

The US also froze the assets of and denied export licenses to 17 “entities” such as energy construction companies and investment groups.

While the sanctions announced Monday were closely coordinated with the European Union to deliver what President Obama says is a “much stronger position” of international unity for affecting Mr. Putin’s behavior, critics of US policy argue that Washington should take the lead on imposing broader sanctions on whole sectors of the Russian economy.

Their argument: The Europeans will follow if Washington leads by imposing the kinds of sanctions on Russian energy, banking, and finance sectors that will get Putin’s attention.

“Putin will not be deterred until the US takes swift action to impose sanctions now on Russia’s financial sector – and authorizes more severe sanctions, such as on Russia’s energy sector, that would go into effect should Putin take additional aggressive actions against Ukraine,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire in a statement after Monday’s sanctions announcement. 

In the same statement, Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the measures announced Monday “just a slap on the wrist” and added: “Until Putin feels the real pain of sanctions targeting entities like Gazprom … as well as some significant financial institutions, I don’t think diplomacy will change Russian behavior and de-escalate this crisis.” 

Obama sees the question of sectoral sanctions differently, however – as ineffective and damaging to US economic interests if not imposed in coordination with the European Union. The EU is a much bigger player in the Russian economy than the US, but so far European leaders have balked at going beyond sanctions on Russian individuals.

The EU also acted Monday, adding 15 names to its list of individuals that have already been targeted with European sanctions over Ukraine. The EU action brought to 48 the number of individuals hit with sanctions, but EU officials said additional names could be added to the list when EU diplomats meet again Wednesday.

The leaders of the G7 group of Western economies hinted at this in a statement released Saturday, in which the US, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Canada, Italy, and Japan said they were “committed to act urgently to intensify targeted sanctions.”

In other words, no sector-wide sanctions now.

Obama made clear in remarks over the weekend that the US would not move ahead on its own on broader sanctions. “The notion that for us to go forward with sectoral sanctions on our own without the Europeans would be the most effective deterrent to Mr. Putin, I think is factually wrong,” the president said in comments to reporters Sunday in Malaysia.

What has the best chance of changing Putin’s “calculus,” the president added, is not the US acting on its own, but a united international front that promises to isolate Russia if it remains on its current path. “We’re going to be a in a stronger position to deter Mr. Putin when he sees that the world is unified,” Obama said.

That approach makes sense to some analysts.

“US sanctions against Russia will work only if they are coordinated with Europe,” says David Cortright, a sanctions expert who is director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. “If Washington acts unilaterally, Putin wins and Ukraine loses.”

But others say the issue is really one of American leadership – and that if Obama leads on imposing the broad and biting sanctions that have the best chance of getting Putin’s attention, the Europeans will follow.

Noting that the EU is a 28-country institution that because of its size and diversity is a slow decision-maker, these analysts say the EU would come around to steps the US took first.

Last month a group of 50 former US officials and foreign policy experts sent a letter to Obama urging US leadership on international efforts to influence Russian behavior on Ukraine, and more recently a task force on Russia advised Obama to go beyond Russian insiders to impose sanctions on nine of Russia’s largest companies.

David Kramer, a task force member, president of the Freedom House international rights advocacy group, and one of Washington’s harshest critics of Putin’s Russia, says the US needs to lead on pressuring Russia. Not only can the US can act more quickly than the EU, he says, but when the US gets the ball rolling, he says, the EU tends to follow the lead.

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