Obama, Merkel warn of tougher sanctions against Russia

The U.S. and Germany are stepping up plans for tougher sanctions against Russia, President Obama said following a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday.

Both of the leaders said they will back sanctions targeting sectors of the Russian economy if the Kremlin does not change its behavior toward Ukraine ahead of elections on that country in May.

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“If, in fact, we see the disruptions and destabilization continuing so severely that it impedes elections on May 25, we will not have a choice but to move forward with additional, more severe sanctions,” Obama said.

The president said that a “broader-based sectoral sanctions regime” would be the next step in Western efforts to shape Russian behavior.

“If we have to use them, we can,” Obama said.

Germany has been more reluctant to back tougher sanctions given economic links with Russia, which supplies it with energy.

But Merkel appeared resolute while standing besides Obama, as she repeatedly emphasized the importance of Ukrainian elections to replace the interim government. She said the U.S. and Europe need to act in concert and expressed concern over the fates of eight international observers — including four Germans — who have been taken hostage by pro-Russian militants.

Merkel said sectoral sanctions were “not necessarily what we want, but we are ready and prepared to go to such a step,” adding that it is “very necessary” to “show that we're serious.”

Obama downplayed concerns that Moscow could combat sectoral sanctions by restricting the flow of energy into Europe.

“Energy flows from Russia to Europe — those continued even in the midst of the Cold War, the height of the Cold War, so the idea that you're going to turn off the tap on all Russia oil or natural gas exports is unrealistic,” Obama said.

Still, he conceded that “within the [European Union], I'm sure there has to be extensive consultations” about next steps. 

“You have 28 countries, and some are more vulnerable than others to potential Russian retaliation,” Obama said.

The president also echoed Merkel's concerns over the captured international observers, calling Russia's inaction “disgraceful” and “inexcusable.”

“Russia needs to work to secure their immediate release,” Obama said.

Last week, the White House announced a new round of penalties, which hit seven Russian government officials and 17 companies linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The move came after pro-Russian militants remained in place following a diplomatic agreement signed in Geneva that offered them amnesty for disarming and leaving occupied government buildings in Eastern Ukraine.

In recent days, fighting in Ukraine has escalated, with pro-Russian militants downing two Ukrainian military helicopters on Friday. Ukrainian authorities also reported killing numerous separatist forces in the city of Slavyansk.