Obama Says New Sanctions on Russia Will Have ‘An Even Bigger Bite’

“Today is a reminder that the United States means what it says,” the president said Tuesday at the White House while announcing new sanctions.

National Journal
Marina Koren and Matt Berman
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Marina Koren Matt Berman
July 29, 2014, 12:04 p.m.

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.

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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.

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