By Erik Wasson - 05/06/14 04:53 PM EDT
The leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made clear to Obama officials Tuesday they think the United States needs to slap more sanctions on Russia as quickly as possible.
The senators said they do not think it's a good idea to wait and see if Russia successfully disrupts the May 25 presidential elections in Ukraine.
“I see the Russians doing everything they can to disrupt those elections,” Chairman Bob Mendendez (D-N.J.) said. “It seems to me that there needs to be a consequence up front.”
Corker pressed Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland on if she was satisfied with the results of sanctions so far, and she said no one can be.
Nuland pointed out, however, that current sanctions are hurting Russia's economic growth and credit rating. She said Secretary of State John Kerry is “burning up the phone lines” to come up with a concrete package to deter Russia from fomenting more unrest in Ukraine.
“It will be a stronger package if we can do it with Europe,” she said, while admitting that getting all the member states on board can be like herding cats.
Corker repeatedly urged a stronger response. He said the sanctions on individuals and companies so far “are just minor irritants” and “not the kind of thing that changes behavior.”
“The president continues to say we are warmongering. It is just the opposite,” he added.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said the U.S. could immediately sanction credit card transactions through Visa and MasterCard, and thereby cripple the Russian economy, but he wondered if the U.S. had the will to impose those sanctions.
"A lot of those sanctions hurt American companies too," he said.
Kerry and European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton made clear in a press conference Tuesday that they are watching very closely any attempts by Russian separatists to hold an “illegal” referendum.
“This is really the Crimea playbook all over again,” Kerry said.
Nuland told the committee that if the May 11 separatist referendum results are once again followed by Russia insert troops, that would definitively trigger sector-wide sanctions.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) repeatedly pressed Nuland to identify other red lines after which new sanctions would be triggered ahead of the May 25 elections.
Nuland declined to outline more specific scenarios, and McCain laid into her.
"I am deeply disappointed by your failure to answer my questions," he said. "I expected more when I supported your nomination for your present position."