On ‘Ukrainian Day,’ Obama Slaps Russia and Wins Praise

The president’s announcement of stiffer sanctions against Moscow is broadly welcomed.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 16: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about foreign policy in the Middle East and the Ukraine in the Brady Press Briefing Room on July 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama formally announced new sanctions on Russia over increasing tensions on the Ukrainian border. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
July 16, 2014, 4:03 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama’s an­nounce­ment of tough­er sanc­tions on Rus­sia on Wed­nes­day was well timed to head off great­er cri­ti­cism of his Ukraine policy in Con­gress and to blunt what had been a rising clam­or in the Ukrain­i­an-Amer­ic­an com­munity. It stopped short of in­clud­ing the pun­ish­ing strikes that would have laid waste to whole sec­tors of the Rus­si­an eco­nomy, but it sent a mes­sage to Vladi­mir Putin that was wel­comed by many of those who had been most frus­trated by the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s meas­ured re­ac­tion to the on­go­ing vi­ol­ence in east­ern Ukraine.

In many ways, the tim­ing could not have been bet­ter. Wed­nes­day was “Ukrain­i­an Day” on Cap­it­ol Hill, a self-de­scribed “ad­vocacy event” that brought more than 100 Ukrain­i­an-Amer­ic­ans to Wash­ing­ton. They fanned out to the of­fices of sup­port­ive sen­at­ors and mem­bers of the House, all in an ef­fort to force the pres­id­ent to im­pose sanc­tions on Rus­sia that were tough­er than any­thing pre­vi­ously im­posed.

Al­ex­an­der B. Kuzma, an of­fi­cial with the Ukrain­i­an Cath­ol­ic Edu­ca­tion Found­a­tion and one of those who helped or­gan­ize the as­sault on the Hill, at noon voiced “def­in­ite deep dis­ap­point­ment” with the lack of fur­ther sanc­tions. Point­ing to the gov­ern­ment’s on­go­ing fight­ing with sep­ar­at­ist forces on the bor­der with Rus­sia, he said the Ukrain­i­an com­munity “is not just alarmed but start­ing to feel tre­mend­ous anxi­ety” that a full-scale Rus­si­an in­va­sion of Ukraine may be im­min­ent. Speak­ing to re­port­ers, Kuzma pleaded for the White House to “send a mes­sage” to Putin.

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Only four hours later, Obama sent that mes­sage to Putin, to Kuzma and his fel­low Ukrain­i­an lob­by­ists, and to the mem­bers of Con­gress who had been call­ing for stronger ac­tion tar­geted against the en­ergy and fin­an­cial sec­tors of the Rus­si­an eco­nomy. Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Bob Cork­er of Ten­ness­ee, the rank­ing mem­ber of the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, called the new move “def­in­itely a step in the right dir­ec­tion.” Lament­ing that “the delay in im­pos­ing real costs on Rus­sia has been dam­aging to U.S. cred­ib­il­ity,” he prom­ised to “con­tin­ue to urge the ad­min­is­tra­tion to ratchet up even more pres­sure if Putin does not change his be­ha­vi­or.”

Ro­man Popa­di­uk, a top of­fi­cial in the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil un­der Pres­id­ent George H.W. Bush, and the first U.S. am­bas­sad­or to Ukraine when the coun­try broke free of the So­viet Uni­on, also noted that the ac­tion falls short of the broad sec­tor­al sanc­tions called for by many Ukrain­i­ans. “But I see this over­all as a very pos­it­ive step on the part of the ad­min­is­tra­tion. It sends a very strong sig­nal to the Rus­si­ans of our re­solve and lays the ground­work for widen­ing these sanc­tions and shows that we are not afraid to do so.”

Popa­di­uk ad­ded that the new sanc­tions end a peri­od of in­ac­tion that could have misled Putin in­to think­ing there would be no fur­ther cost to his sup­port for the sep­ar­at­ists and his use of the Rus­si­an mil­it­ary to shoot down a Ukrain­i­an trans­port plane on Monday. “The long, drawn-out time peri­od between the last set of sanc­tions and today may have led the Rus­si­ans to be­lieve that they might have a little bit more flex­ib­il­ity, play­ing the game of sup­port­ing the sep­ar­at­ists while mak­ing them­selves look like they were for peace and ne­go­ti­ation,” he told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “This shows the Rus­si­ans we are on to what they are up to and you can’t play that game any­more.”

A seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial, speak­ing on back­ground to re­port­ers, made it clear that the pres­id­ent ac­ted after get­ting fed up with the Rus­si­an fail­ure to be­have in the re­gion. “We’ve made clear time and again that if Rus­sia does not re­spect Ukraine’s sov­er­eignty and ter­rit­ori­al in­teg­rity and does not, in good faith, fol­low through on ne­ces­sary com­mit­ments for de-es­cal­a­tion, that we’ll move to im­pose ad­di­tion­al costs,” said the of­fi­cial. “That’s what we’re do­ing today.”

An­oth­er seni­or of­fi­cial noted that the situ­ation had be­come more dire as the fight­ing in­tens­i­fied in Ukraine. “Es­pe­cially over the past sev­er­al weeks, the Rus­si­an gov­ern­ment has chosen to es­cal­ate its un­law­ful activ­it­ies in Ukraine and has chosen to do so in the face of very clear mes­sages that con­tinu­ing down that path will lead to in­creas­ing sanc­tions pres­sures.”

The an­nounce­ment was timed to co­in­cide with a meet­ing in Brus­sels of the heads of the European Uni­on. U.S. of­fi­cials down­played the fact that the E.U. and Wash­ing­ton have not al­ways been in sync on the best blend of sanc­tions. “We do ex­pect the Europeans to take ac­tion. We’ve al­ways said that we’ll take dif­fer­ent types of ac­tions based on our ap­proach to sanc­tions, but we’re pleased that there re­mains close co­ordin­a­tion,” said one of­fi­cial. The im­port­ant thing, ad­ded the oth­er of­fi­cial, is that the new­est sanc­tions “will only fur­ther ex­acer­bate Rus­sia’s eco­nom­ic prob­lems, and these prob­lems are quite sub­stan­tial.”

In his an­nounce­ment of the sanc­tions in the White House Brief­ing Room, the pres­id­ent said he now hopes “the Rus­si­an lead­er­ship will see once again that its ac­tions in Ukraine have con­sequences, in­clud­ing a weak­en­ing Rus­si­an eco­nomy and in­creas­ing dip­lo­mat­ic isol­a­tion.”

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