On 'Ukrainian Day,' Obama Slaps Russia and Wins Praise

The president's announcement of stiffer sanctions against Moscow is broadly welcomed.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 16: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about foreign policy in the Middle East and the Ukraine in the Brady Press Briefing Room on July 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama formally announced new sanctions on Russia over increasing tensions on the Ukrainian border. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) (National Journal)

President Obama's announcement of tougher sanctions on Russia on Wednesday was well timed to head off greater criticism of his Ukraine policy in Congress and to blunt what had been a rising clamor in the Ukrainian-American community. It stopped short of including the punishing strikes that would have laid waste to whole sectors of the Russian economy, but it sent a message to Vladimir Putin that was welcomed by many of those who had been most frustrated by the administration's measured reaction to the ongoing violence in eastern Ukraine.

In many ways, the timing could not have been better. Wednesday was "Ukrainian Day" on Capitol Hill, a self-described "advocacy event" that brought more than 100 Ukrainian-Americans to Washington. They fanned out to the offices of supportive senators and members of the House, all in an effort to force the president to impose sanctions on Russia that were tougher than anything previously imposed.

Alexander B. Kuzma, an official with the Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation and one of those who helped organize the assault on the Hill, at noon voiced "definite deep disappointment" with the lack of further sanctions. Pointing to the government's ongoing fighting with separatist forces on the border with Russia, he said the Ukrainian community "is not just alarmed but starting to feel tremendous anxiety" that a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine may be imminent. Speaking to reporters, Kuzma pleaded for the White House to "send a message" to Putin.

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Only four hours later, Obama sent that message to Putin, to Kuzma and his fellow Ukrainian lobbyists, and to the members of Congress who had been calling for stronger action targeted against the energy and financial sectors of the Russian economy. Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, called the new move "definitely a step in the right direction." Lamenting that "the delay in imposing real costs on Russia has been damaging to U.S. credibility," he promised to "continue to urge the administration to ratchet up even more pressure if Putin does not change his behavior."

Roman Popadiuk, a top official in the National Security Council under President George H.W. Bush, and the first U.S. ambassador to Ukraine when the country broke free of the Soviet Union, also noted that the action falls short of the broad sectoral sanctions called for by many Ukrainians. "But I see this overall as a very positive step on the part of the administration. It sends a very strong signal to the Russians of our resolve and lays the groundwork for widening these sanctions and shows that we are not afraid to do so."

Popadiuk added that the new sanctions end a period of inaction that could have misled Putin into thinking there would be no further cost to his support for the separatists and his use of the Russian military to shoot down a Ukrainian transport plane on Monday. "The long, drawn-out time period between the last set of sanctions and today may have led the Russians to believe that they might have a little bit more flexibility, playing the game of supporting the separatists while making themselves look like they were for peace and negotiation," he told National Journal. "This shows the Russians we are on to what they are up to and you can't play that game anymore."

A senior administration official, speaking on background to reporters, made it clear that the president acted after getting fed up with the Russian failure to behave in the region. "We've made clear time and again that if Russia does not respect Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and does not, in good faith, follow through on necessary commitments for de-escalation, that we'll move to impose additional costs," said the official. "That's what we're doing today."

Another senior official noted that the situation had become more dire as the fighting intensified in Ukraine. "Especially over the past several weeks, the Russian government has chosen to escalate its unlawful activities in Ukraine and has chosen to do so in the face of very clear messages that continuing down that path will lead to increasing sanctions pressures."

The announcement was timed to coincide with a meeting in Brussels of the heads of the European Union. U.S. officials downplayed the fact that the E.U. and Washington have not always been in sync on the best blend of sanctions. "We do expect the Europeans to take action. We've always said that we'll take different types of actions based on our approach to sanctions, but we're pleased that there remains close coordination," said one official. The important thing, added the other official, is that the newest sanctions "will only further exacerbate Russia's economic problems, and these problems are quite substantial."

In his announcement of the sanctions in the White House Briefing Room, the president said he now hopes "the Russian leadership will see once again that its actions in Ukraine have consequences, including a weakening Russian economy and increasing diplomatic isolation."