Hit Putin, Republicans tell Obama

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President Obama on Monday came under increasing pressure from Republicans in Congress to bring down the hammer on Russian President Vladimir Putin for his actions in Ukraine.

Their calls came after Obama announced a new round of sanctions that will hit members of Putin’s inner circle, including seven Russian government officials and 17 companies.

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“The goal here is not to go after Mr. Putin personally,” Obama said at a press conference in the Philippines. “The goal is to change his calculus with respect to how the current actions that he’s engaging in Ukraine could have an adverse impact on the Russian economy over the long haul and to encourage him to actually walk the walk and not just talk the talk when it comes to diplomatically resolving the crisis in Ukraine.” 

The president conceded that he did not know whether the sanctions would convince the Kremlin to denounce the pro-Russian separatists who have seized government buildings in Eastern Ukraine.

Republican critics said the sanctions — the third round since March 17 — amounted to little more than a “slap on the wrist” that would do little to deter Moscow.

“The administration’s tepid, incremental sanctions are insufficient given Russia’s continued occupation of Crimea and ongoing actions to fuel unrest in eastern Ukraine,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said in a joint statement with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.)

Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.), a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, said the targeted penalties announced by the president were “meaningless” and suggested that the U.S. should be preparing to ship military aid — including anti-tank and anti-missile equipment — to Kiev.

“That’s not going to put the Ukraine in the position where they could stand up to a full onslaught from Russia, but it could help them in dealing with minor skirmishes and escalate what the real-world consequences are for Russia,” Messer told Bloomberg news.

Republicans urged the president to move forward with broader sanctions that could devastate important industries that are propping up the fragile Russian economy.

European allies have been reluctant to impose extensive financial penalties because they fear disrupting the flow of natural gas to their countries or upsetting the Russian oligarchs who live and spend freely in European banking capitals.

If the U.S. were to move alone, Obama would risk alienating European leaders still wary of Washington after revelations of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. The White House has also said that unilateral sanctions would not carry the same bite as those calibrated with Europe.

Europe’s resistance has put Obama in a tough spot, with his political opponents mocking his response as weak even as he struggles to impose sanctions that increase the pressure on Putin to stand down.

Obama appeared to anticipate the criticism that would be coming his way.

“Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army?” Obama said. “Or are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of international pressure, diplomatic pressure and economic pressure that we’re applying?”

A senior administration official on Monday say there’s no scenario in which the Ukrainian military can be brought to “parity with the Russian military.”

“This is not the type of action that we believe have the most significant deterrent on Russia’s calculus. We have a far greater ability to affect Russia and impose a cost on Russia by imposing sanctions,” the official said. 

The White House disputed the notion that sanctions haven’t had an impact.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew insisted that the “sanctions are doing what sanctions can do.”

“They’re now just one notch above junk rating [on] their bond rating. That’s because of the sanctions, as well as the conditions of the economy, because of their own actions,” Lew told NBC News. 

A U.S. official also declared that the administration was “confident the Europeans are with us” in imposing sanctions on entire sectors of the Russian economy, should, for example, “we see Russian troops cross that border.”

Still, the president is under pressure on multiple fronts. Republicans have also pushed Obama to increase U.S. natural gas exports to help European economies dependent on Russian exports.

“If we went after mining, if we went after financial services, energy, if the United States were to announce a major program to ship gas into Ukraine and break the Russian monopoly in Eastern Europe, these types of steps would, I think, have an impact,” Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, told MSNBC.

A senior administration official said the White House had already engaged in dialogues with Europe “on ways of over time certainly diversifying the European energy picture.”

Monday’s sanctions package did include new restrictions on 13 of the Russian companies in an attempt to prevent the export of U.S. manufacturing to them. 

And the State Department is joining with Commerce Department to deny the export of “license applications for any high-technology items that could contribute to Russia’s military capabilities,” the White House said.

Administration officials said the new sanctions would hit players responsible for underwriting important sectors of the Russian economy.

Companies that will see their assets frozen include Transoil, one of Russia’s largest railway operators; financial services firm Volga Group, which funds infrastructure projects inside Russia; and aviation firm Avia Solutions Group.

In addition, a U.S. official said the administration was “really scrutinizing” export applications to block those that “involve technology that the Russian defense industrial complex is in need of.” Microelectronic exports that could be used in weapons systems will be among the items targeted.

In Manila, Obama said his approach “may not always be sexy,” but claimed it has shown results.

“It doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run,” Obama said. “But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”