President Obama faces a difficult challenge in seeking to contain widening political violence in Ukraine that has left at least 26 people dead.
Obama is coming under pressure from both parties in Congress to slap sanctions on Ukraine’s government and has been criticized in some quarters for doing too little.
The Obama administration was embarrassed earlier this month when a recording of two senior U.S. diplomats was leaked online, most likely by Russia.
The tape was meant to undercut the U.S. in Ukraine and included comments from Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, describing which opposition leaders the U.S. would like to see gain power. The tape was posted on YouTube with a title deriding the protesters as “puppets.”
Another complication for Obama is that the White House also has plenty of other issues on its table with regards to Putin and Russia.
Obama is trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, and a political settlement in Syria. He needs Russia's help on Iran and Syria, where he hopes the Kremlin will hold Syrian President Bashar Assad's feet to the fire after he blew two deadlines to turn over its chemical weapons arsenal.
Obama’s comments so far have been less bellicose than those of some lawmakers, and he has been careful to avoid fueling suspicions of U.S. meddling on the Kremlin's doorstep.
He’s urged both sides in Kiev to be peaceful.
“We expect peaceful protestors to remain peaceful, and we’ll be monitoring very closely the situation, recognizing that, with our European partners and the international community, there will be consequences if people step over the line,” Obama said Wednesday at a joint press conference in Mexico with President Enrique Peña Nieto.
The U.S. has been pressing the European Union to get more involved in Ukraine, and on Thursday, it is expected to endorse sanctions on Kiev. On Wednesday, the State Department announced it had banned 20 senior government officials and others involved in the recent violence from traveling to the U.S.
But that won’t do much to subdue the cries for more U.S. action that are now coming from Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
Legislation could come before House and Senate committees as early as next week that would freeze the assets of government officials and ban them from getting U.S. visas.
“The actions of President [Viktor] Yanukovych and his government are deplorable and the time is now to apply sanctions against the Ukrainian government for gross human rights violations,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert MenendezRobert MenendezSteve Mnuchin, foreclosure king, now runs your US Treasury Senate Dems move to nix Trump's deportation order Senators to Trump: We support additional Iran sanctions MORE (D-N.J.) said in a statement condemning the “state-sponsored violence” against the Ukrainian people. “I expect the Administration with congressional support to act swiftly on this issue of critical importance.”
Pressure from Congress can be helpful to the administration by creating a “good cop/bad cop” scenario that gives U.S. diplomats more leverage.
Sen. Chris MurphyChris MurphyDem senator goes on tweet storm over leaked ObamaCare repeal plan A guide to the committees: Senate Senators eye new sanctions against Iran MORE (D-Conn.) told The Hill he and Sen. John McCainJohn McCainDrug importation won't save dollars or lives Dem rep Charlie Crist files for divorce Why the GOP cannot sweep its Milo scandal under the rug MORE (R-Ariz.) are working on sanctions legislation with input from the State Department and is not seeking to force the administration's hand.
“This is not a fight between the United States and Russia. This is about the United States standing up for basic civil rights around the world,” Murphy told The Hill in a phone interview. “There is a way out for Yanukovych, and he's had this option for months. His country will be better off, economically, by joining the European Union.”
Legislation from Congress, however, could also tie a president’s hands, and the Obama administration would want to make sure that whatever emerges from Congress doesn’t limit the president’s options.
Steven Pifer, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said he didn't believe the White House was “trimming its sails because of Russia.”
He said the administration has held back so far, as it sought to convince Yanukovych to engage with the opposition, but it might be ready to ramp up sanctions considerably if the EU takes action.
“This is the time for the administration to be a bit bolder,” Pifer said. “It could encourage people around Yanukovych to push him to change direction.”