President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Friday that the West is prepared to move “in concert” in imposing sanctions on key sectors of the Russian economy if Russia’s actions in Ukraine continue in a way that disrupts the strife-torn country’s upcoming national elections.
The two leaders’ emphasis on Ukraine’s elections set for May 25 appears to set a new and lower threshold for moving ahead with sanctions on Russia’s dominant energy industry and on other crucial economic sectors such as finance and the arms trade.
Until now, Western leaders in Europe in particular had seemed to suggest that the leap to broad economic sanctions, which the Europeans want to avoid, would only result from an overt Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine. But Ms. Merkel and Mr. Obama, laying out their positions at a White House Rose Garden press conference, were clearly speaking in coordinated fashion as both leaders zeroed in on any campaign to disrupt the elections as the trigger for tougher Russian sanctions.
Saying the United States and Europe are “stepping up our planning” on additional punitive measures against Russia, Obama insisted that if the “Russian leadership” acted in a way that “disrupts this month’s elections, we will move quickly on further sanctions.”
Also putting the emphasis on May 25, Merkel vowed to “see to it that the elections can take place” – while insisting that it would be continued destabilizing activities from Russia that would determine if the West moves to impose “further sanctions” on the Russian economy.
“It’s very much up to the Russians which road we will embark on,” Merkel said.
The two leaders projected their united front on a day when Ukraine slipped deeper into civil conflict, and when the gulf between Western and Russian portrayals of the Ukraine crisis widened further.
Earlier Friday, Ukrainian security forces moved against separatists holding government buildings and manning roadblocks in eastern Ukraine, killing as many as five of the protesters. But also Friday two Ukrainian helicopters were brought down by enemy fire and at least one by a surface-to-air missile. Two Ukrainian soldiers were killed.
Russia condemned the Ukrainian authorities for launching an attack on their own people, and said the violence was proof that the government in Kiev was totally disregarding the de-escalation steps it agreed to in last month’s Geneva accord with Russia, the US, and the European Union.
And at a United Nations Security Council meeting on Ukraine that took place at the same time Obama and Merkel were meeting in Washington, Russia placed the blame for Ukraine’s turmoil on the US and its European partners. The West must “stop toying with the destiny of the Ukrainian people,” said Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin.
In response, the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, accused Russia of "pushing ... monumental falsehoods" about its actions in Ukraine. "Russia may have the power to instigate fear, to spread lies, and to sow discord, violence, and disarray across its border, it may even have the power to abuse its veto here at the Security Council," she said, "but ... it cannot veto the truth."
Obama, in the Rose Garden press conference, laid the blame for the Ukraine crisis on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s shoulders, saying the West cannot accept Mr. Putin’s position “that he has the right to violate the sovereignty of another country, violate its territorial integrity.” He also hinted that he saw Russia’s hand in the downing of the Ukrainian helicopters, commenting at another point in the press conference that “generally local protesters don’t have these weapons … surface-to-air missiles” that can bring down aircraft.
The continuing disconnect between Western and Russian perceptions of events in Ukraine offers little hope that the crisis will ease any time soon, casting serious doubts about the climate for the elections that the West sees as Ukraine’s next big test.
But the fact that Obama and Merkel are publicly rallying around the May 25 elections does not mean that the road to coordinated sanctions on Russia’s energy industry and other sectors will be a smooth one, some regional analysts say.
“While Merkel and Obama will try to sing from the same sheet music today, they will not be in complete harmony on tougher sanctions on Moscow,” says Michael Desch, a political scientist specializing in international security and US foreign policy at the University of Notre Dame.
The US and EU have focused on different groups of Russian individuals in their initial rounds of sanctions, some experts note – the US has targeted what it says are members of Putin’s “inner circle,” while the EU has preferred to hit military figures it suspects of playing some role in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
In the same vein, the EU would very likely impose different sanctions from the US even if the two powers agreed to proceed to the next step of broad economic sanctions.
Obama reiterated his position that the objective of broad sector-wide sanctions on Russia would not be to punish Russia but to demonstrate that it will pay “costs” for remaining on it current course. At the same time, however, he said no one should expect to see the flow of energy from Russia cut off.
“Energy flows continued at the height of the Cold War,” Obama said. So “the idea that you’re going to turn off the tap [with sanctions] I think is unrealistic.”
While the press conference focused on Ukraine, questions from the German press corps in particular made it clear that the revelations of NSA spying on America’s allies – including Germany – remain a sore spot for Germans.
Merkel underscored the conversation the US and Germany have held on the issue since the spying was revealed in leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden last year. Noting that “we have a few difficulties yet to overcome,” she said the two sides agreed to pursue a “cyber-dialogue” to meet both sides’ concerns.
But Merkel sought to reassure her constituents back home, insisting that the product of that dialogue “will have to be more than business as usual.”