This time last week, the Obama administration was sending not-so-subtle hints to Europe, persuading the continent’s leaders to react to continued Russian aggression in Ukraine.
On Tuesday, President Obama announced that he and the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, and Italy would impose sanctions on key sectors of the Russian economy. For Europe, these measures are the strictest since the Ukraine crisis began in March.
The U.S. sanctions target several banks and defense firms, as well as exports to and investments in Russian energy companies. The European measures target financial and energy sectors, and block arms exports to Russia.
“Because we’re closely coordinating our actions with Europe, the sanctions we’re announcing today will have an even bigger bite,” Obama said.
Earlier rounds of U.S. sanctions have proved ineffective without European support. The White House has been trying for months to persuade Europe to impose higher costs on Russian aggression in Ukraine. The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which killed 298 civilians, appeared to have galvanized the reaction it wanted. After months of criticism stateside for not taking a stronger stance against Russia, Obama seems to have gotten a win with these tandem sanctions.
Responding to a question after his statement, Obama declined to say that the U.S. and Russia are in a new cold war.
“It’s not a new cold war,” he said. “What it is, is a very specific issue related to Russia’s unwillingness to recognize that Ukraine can chart its own path.”
Russia, he said, is responsible for the continued civil unrest in Eastern Ukraine. “It didn’t have to come to this. It does not have to be this way,” Obama said. “This is a choice that Russia and President Putin in particular has made.” Over the weekend, the administration released aerial photos that it said showed that Russian troops on their side of the border had recently fired artillery rounds into Ukraine.
The president also placed the new sanctions in the broader context of America’s role in the world. “Today is a reminder that the United States means what it says and we will rally the international community in standing up for rights and freedom around the world,” he said.
Obama did not rule out providing lethal aid to Ukraine when asked if his administration is considering it, but he did suggest that the option is not being considered. “The issue is how do we prevent bloodshed in eastern Ukraine? We’re trying to avoid that,” he said. “And the main tool that we have to influence Russian behavior at this point is the impact that it’s having on its economy.”
The U.S. and Europe have joined together in a similar fashion to isolate Putin before, when Western nations cut Russia out of various multilateral organizations and meetings. But Putin feels most comfortable when he’s cornered. Recall that in March, a day after the U.S. announced its second round of sanctions against Russia, Putin annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. If Russia’s past behavior in Ukraine is indicative of what’s to come, international pressure won’t stop Putin from taking action.