WASHINGTON — Senate lawmakers blasted Obama administration officials Wednesday for a weak response and a lack of new sanctions on Russia for its aggression toward Ukraine.
Leaders in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said a string of U.S. threats have failed to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from allowing equipment and fighters to flow across the border of Ukraine, which is fighting Russian-backed separatists in its east, and having had its Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia in March.
The U.S. imposed a set of sanctions on Moscow in March and had backed an effort over the past two months by newly elected Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko to reconcile with separatists and bring stability to Ukraine, a former Soviet republic. But Poroshenko called off a 10-day unilateral ceasefire this week after violence flared and his government lost territory to the rebels.
“What is keeping us from going ahead and putting sanctions in place when we know there is Russian military equipment on the ground in eastern Ukraine?” said Sen. Tom Corker, R-Tenn., as he criticized the State Department’s handling of the crisis. “Seriously, I sometimes wonder if foreign service officers feel like resigning when you are put out there to sound tough but know that nothing is really going to happen.”
Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said “hollow” threats of new sanctions last month had little effect on Putin’s strategy in Ukraine.
The Russian president feinted a withdrawal of forces along the eastern Ukrainian border but then proceeded to cut off gas supplies and allow tanks and fighters to cross over, continuing his gambit to exert influence and control in the region after taking Crimea earlier this year, Menendez said.
“What are we waiting for?” he said.
Victoria Nuland, the State Department’s assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, said the Obama administration was hopeful that Poroshenko’s peace plans could work to pacify Ukraine but continued aggression backed by Putin has caused skepticism.
The administration is now crafting a new package of Russia sanctions. President Barack Obama issued executive orders in March freezing the holdings of individuals, businesses and institutions that stole assets from Ukraine.
But the administration has been reluctant to act again without an agreement with Germany and other European allies on how to punish Russia, Nuland said.
“We are now talking to the Europeans on when it is appropriate to move together,” she said. “We very much prefer to move together, so we are looking at the evidence and building the package as we move forward.”
European Union leaders will have a final summer meeting July 16, which could be the last opportunity for some time for the U.S. to reach an agreement with its allies in the region, Nuland said.
If no deal on sanctions is reached, Obama has said he may be willing to act alone to further counter Russian aggression, she said.
The current sanctions are having some effect in fending off Russia and are allowing the U.S. to focus on aiding and training the Ukrainian military, which is another key area of support, said Derek Chollet, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.
But the security situation remains dire, especially along the country’s porous eastern border, despite some reported victories by Ukrainian forces in recent days, Chollet said.
“I think we have to really expect the worst in terms of Russian response,” he said, “and that is why we are watching it very closely.”