Obama announces sanctions on Russian officials
President Barack Obama discusses Ukraine during a meeting with members of his national security staff in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 28, 2014.
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration hit at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle Monday in a bid to punish Russia for poaching Crimea from Ukraine, slapping sanctions on 11 Russian and Ukrainian officials it said had been instrumental in orchestrating the division.
Those targeted include two of Putin’s aides and top officials in the Russian Parliament, along with deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the rump prime minister of Crimea and others the administration called “key ideologists” of Russian’s intervention in Ukraine.
In Moscow, Putin responded by signing a decree recognizing Crimea’s independence from Ukraine, while the breakaway Black Sea region asked the United Nations for membership as the Republic of Crimea, Russian news agencies reported. The Crimean Parliament also passed a resolution asking that Russia absorb it, a step that would require approval by the Russian Parliament, or Duma.
President Barack Obama, who talked with Putin as recently as Sunday in an unsuccessful effort to get him to relinquish his hold in Crimea, appeared at the White House to announce the sanctions and threaten more if the crisis escalates.
“Further provocations will achieve nothing, except to further isolate Russia and diminish its place in the world,” Obama said. “Continued Russian military intervention in Ukraine will only deepen Russia’s diplomatic isolation and exact a greater toll on the Russian economy.”
The White House said it fashioned the sanctions to target individuals who “wield influence in the Russian government and those responsible for the situation in Ukraine.”
Obama said he still believes there could be a diplomatic resolution to the burgeoning crisis, but spoke about it only briefly. And White House officials said he expanded an earlier executive order to allow the administration to target what a senior administration called “Russian government cronies” — Russian arms traffickers and others who provide support to senior government officials.
The sanctions mean that any assets the individuals have within U.S. jurisdiction are frozen and U.S. persons are prohibited from doing business with them.
One of those targeted, Dmitry Rogozin, purportedly tweeted out: “Comrade @BarackObama, but what about those who do not have any accounts or property abroad? Or U didn’t think about it?”
The administration couldn’t say whether any of the targets had assets in the United States or Europe, but State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said banks routinely reject doing business with people whose names are on international sanctions lists, even if they aren’t legally barred from doing so.
The European Union announced sanctions against 21 individuals, and administration officials said the U.S. will look at additional sanctions, “should Russian activities increase in intensity.”
They said the two lists are expected to have a “multiplying impact.”
“The fact that both the United States and the European Union are acting together today to make very clear that what has transpired in Ukraine is illegitimate is a critical point,” said a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition that he not be further identified.
Putin wasn’t among those sanctioned — a move administration officials said would be “highly unusual and rather extraordinary” — but White House press secretary Jay Carney didn’t rule out that he could be in the future.
“We have an active effort underway to assess what further steps and what further sanctions we can and could impose, should the events dictate the need to do that,” Carney said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has blamed Obama’s Russia policy for emboldening Putin in Crimea, called the response “wholly inadequate” and urged the administration to “rush” military aid to Ukraine’s government.
“In the absence of a stronger U.S. and Western response to this aggression, we run the risk of signaling to Putin that he can be even more expansive in furthering his old imperial ambitions,” McCain said.
Carney said the administration is reviewing requests by the Ukrainian government and military for assistance and hasn’t ruled it out, “but our focus continues to be on supporting economic and diplomatic measures to de-escalate the situation, not escalate it.”
Administration officials said the sanctions are “far and away” the most sweeping applied to Russia since the end of the Cold War. But analysts suggest sanctions — which have been used with limited success against already isolated nations such as North Korea or Iran — may be difficult to make stick in Russia.
“It’s a blessing and a curse trying to sanction such a country … so intertwined in the global economy,” said Michael Singh, a former top National Security Agency adviser in the Bush administration. “It means there are risks for those who are imposing sanctions. There can be this blowback.”
By the same token, he said, it means the Russians too have more to lose than countries like North Korea.
“Russia itself is much more integrated in the global economy, therefore it cannot afford to ignore the kind of sanctions that could be coming from the West,” Singh said.
He said the administration and the EU must avoid an incremental approach and move quickly with further sanctions. The chances are great that a single incident could provoke bloodshed in the Ukraine or trigger a full-blown Russian invasion, he said.
“Does President Putin, who really seems to be a solo decision maker, care about the kinds of costs you have imposed so far?” Singh said. “What you really want to do is make Putin think. You want to put him on his heels.”
He noted that with Putin’s sagging popularity bolstered, and the Ukraine crisis providing a pretext to crack down on domestic dissent, “it may be for Putin that this all serves a valuable purpose that is more important to him than whatever the economic costs might be.”
David McFadden, director of the Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies department at Fairfield University in Connecticut, said the sanctions were unlikely to make a difference quickly. Still, Russia’s efforts to become a modern economic power have made it vulnerable to sanctions, if the world is willing to wait for them to bite.
“In the long run, Russia’s economy is tied to the international community and it cannot isolate itself,” McFadden said. “In the short run, he’s got Crimea.”
The individuals targeted are all politicians, and there’s been no attempt so far by the White House to yet target key economic actors, such as Alexey Miller, who heads the giant natural-gas conglomerate Gazprom, or Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company.
John Kilduff, an analyst with energy trader Again Capital in New York, who is watching for whether sanctions will hit the energy sector, said he doubted Western powers would try to isolate oil and gas exports from Russia, the world’s largest oil producer.
Part of the difficulty is that the giant companies are so globally tied. Exxon Mobil has a deal to drill for oil in the Kara Sea with Rosneft, and the Russian oil giant is poised to purchase the oil-trading arm of Wall Street powerhouse Morgan Stanley. Multiple news reports Monday said that Rosneft had just taken a 50 percent stake in Italian tire maker Pirelli.
Europe is also heavily dependent on Russian exports of natural gas, with some countries in central Europe receiving 100 percent of their fuel supplies from Moscow.
Those targeted in Monday’s action include two of Putin’s presidential aides, Vladislav Surkov and Sergey Glazyev, and a group of legislators who must act if Putin recommends that Russia subsume Crimea: Leonid Slutsky, a State Duma deputy; Andrei Klishas, a member of the Council of Federations of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation and chairman of the Federation Council Committee of Constitutional Law, Judicial and Legal Affairs and the Development of Civil Society; Valentina Matviyenko, head of the Federation Council; Dmitry Rogozin, deputy prime minister of the Russian Federation; and Yelena Mizulina, a State Duma deputy.
All seven “played a leading role as an ideologist, a strategist or an architect of the referendum strategy, and is also a leading proponent of formal annexation of Crimea by Russia,” a senior administration official said.
The Ukrainians include Yanukovych; two Crimea-based separatist leaders whom the administration says were responsible for pushing the referendum: Sergey Aksyonov, whom the White House says “claims to be the prime minister of Crimea,” and Vladimir Konstantinov, who has been acting as the speaker of the Crimean Parliament, as well as Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of Ukrainian Choice, whom the administration described as the leading Ukrainian connection between the Kremlin and Crimea.
Hannah Allam contributed to this report.