Congressional foreign policy hawks are pressing President Obama to move ahead now with broader sanctions against Russia as a means of discouraging Russian President Vladimir Putin from sending his forces into eastern Ukraine.
The Obama administration has used tough words and made strong accusations concerning Russia’s latest moves – including Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertion Tuesday that Russia is seeking to create a “pretext” for military intervention in Ukraine.
But for now the US and its Western partners appear to prefer brandishing tougher sanctions as a threat to be carried out only if Russia moves into Ukraine.
In the intensifying debate over sanctions against Russia as a preemptive and preventive tool versus a reactive and punitive one, the Obama administration so far is sticking with the latter. But members of Congress are increasingly critical of that stance.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona told Mr. Kerry at a committee hearing Tuesday that the Obama administration was hitting Russia with a “twig” when a “big stick” is in order.
“On the issue of Ukraine, my hero, Teddy Roosevelt, used to say talk softly but carry a big stick,” Mr. McCain said. “What you’re doing is talking strongly and carrying a very small stick, in fact a twig.”
McCain’s Republican colleague Bob Corker of Tennessee said in a television interview Wednesday that “Russia doesn’t believe the US ever will” impose tougher sanctions. To disabuse Mr. Putin of such thinking and to deter Russia from taking military action, Mr. Corker said, Mr. Obama should send “another shot across the bow” in the form of sanctions against whole sectors of the Russian economy.
“The president has the ability to put in place sectoral sanctions,” Corker said in an interview on MSNBC. “We have this massive troop buildup. We know [Russian] black ops folks are operating inside Ukraine fomenting the unrest … and yet we still have not done those things to inflict pain.”
Calling for sanctions on Russian financial institutions, for example, Corker said, “I do think another shot across the bow that would affect economically their country is an important thing to do.”
The US and its European allies have already imposed two rounds of sanctions against Russian individuals (and one bank) over last month’s annexation of Crimea. The administration is considering additional measures against Russia, but Kerry suggested in his comments to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that a third round of sanctions targeting whole sectors of the economy – energy, finance, and mining, for example – would come into play if Russia further escalates its actions.
Kerry also said that the measures “on the table” are being considered in conjunction with Western European partners. But the Europeans, who have much more at stake in Russia’s economy, are sounding reluctant about taking tougher action unless Russia blatantly crosses a new line – for example by sending troops into Ukraine.
“We are willing to consider new measures within step 2, whereas step 3” – sanctions targeting key sectors of the Russian economy – “would be more reactive to new actions,” says a European diplomat in Washington. Asked if a third stage of sanctions would only come in reaction to Russian action or might be enacted to try to head off further action, the diplomat said, “I would say honestly, more the former.”
The West is unlikely to move to broader economic sanctions short of some overt Russian aggression against Ukraine, the diplomat says, despite a recognition in the West that Russia may continue on its current course of undermining Ukrainian stability without ever sending its amassed troops across the border.
Positing that Putin’s goal may be to pursue actions aimed at delegitimizing the government in Kiev without ever moving in militarily, the diplomat says, “The Russians are good at staying in a kind of gray zone.”