Obama wary of fight with Republicans over Russia sanctions

GOP pushing for sanctions directed against senior Russian officials close to Putin as administration fears Iran repeat

A confrontation is brewing between the White House and Republicans in Congress over the nature and severity of sanctions expected to be levelled at Russia over its invasion of Crimea.

The Senate and House foreign relations committees have been working frantically over the last 48 hours to draft a bill to shore up Ukraine’s economy.

But Republicans are pushing for the legislation, which could be introduced as soon as Thursday and proceed to markup as early as 11 March, to also include clauses that would compel president Barack Obama’s legislation to direct sanctions against senior Russian officials close to president Vladimir Putin.

The White House is encouraging Congress to quickly pass legislation to authorise an aid package consisting of $1bn in loan guarantees that was announced by the secretary of state John Kerry in Kiev on Tuesday.

At a press conference, Kerry said that if Russia does not change course, “our partners will have absolutely no choice but to join us to continue to expand on steps we have taken in recent days in order to isolate Russia diplomatically, politically and economically”.

He added: “This is not something we are seeking to do. This is something Russia’s choices may force us to do.”

But administration officials are anxious about developments on Capitol Hill, and keen to ensure Obama maintains a free hand to decide what kinds of sanctions are introduced and when.

Obama had been expected to imminently use presidential executive orders to introduce visa bans and asset freezes against Russian figures responsible for the invasion, but remarks by Putin on Tuesday in which he played down the prospect of a military confrontation with Ukraine may change the calculus in Washington.

A disagreement between Obama and Congress would be reminiscent of the recent clash over new Iran sanctions, when the White House had to battle hard to thwart legislation on Capitol Hill it said would thwart delicate nuclear negotiations with Tehran.

Adam Kinzinger, a moderate Republican congressman on the foreign relations committee, told the Guardian that sanctions against Russia should likely include visa restrictions and asset freezes, but might also go further, possibly including a mechanism to “damage” Moscow’s energy exports.

The congressman said that Obama, as the executive, should take the lead on sanctions. But he added: “To the extent that we think he is not being tough enough, I think you’ll see Congress coming in and potentially doing something.”

Ed Royce, who chairs the committee, and was an the architect of the Iran sanctions push that infuriated the Obama administration, told CNN: “The question is will the White House support something as aggressive as the economic sanctions that we would like to see pushed.”

Royce has been working with his counterpart in the Senate, Democrat Robert Menendez, on legislation for Ukraine. Both senators met with Jack Lew, the Treasury secretary, who has a team of officials drafting a range of sanctions for Obama to consider.

“We in the House and the Senate are usually quite favorably disposed to the types of crippling economic sanctions which would really implode an economy, really have an effect. The administration is usually pushing back on sanctions,” Royce said.

“I think we’re going to be very bullish in doing what we need to do to make Putin feel the heat, or at least to have the oligarchs around him, the business community, feel the kind of pressure that is going to come if they don’t cease and desist.”

“The time to act is now,” Royce added on Tuesday a statement shortly after Kerry’s remarks. “We must place crippling sanctions on Russian high-ranking officials, state-owned banks and commercial enterprises, and key individuals behind the Russian intervention.”

Asked if Congress might seek to compel the Obama administration to take a tougher stance on sanctions, Jen Psaki, press secretary for the State Department, replied: “Of course Congress can take steps, or may take steps, as it sees appropriate.”

But she said the range of sanctions being considered by the US are not restricted to visa bans and asset freezes targeting Russian individuals, but may also attack the “financial sector” and wider economy.

In Kiev on Tuesday, Kerry unveiled a package of support for Ukraine, including the loan guarantees as well as technical banking and financial assistance, and trained observers to assist with elections scheduled for 25 May.

His remarks touched only briefly on possible sanctions. “We are prepared to take further steps if Russia does not return its forces to the barracks and engage in a legitimate policy of de-escalation,” Kerry said.

The White House is balancing a number of competing pressures.

On one hand, Obama is being characterised by Republican opponents as weak, and under intense pressure to be seen taking forceful action against Putin. His administration has so far only threatened economic punishment against Russia, although it has taken some steps to ostracise Moscow politically, such as persuading G7 industrialised nations to cancel preparatory meetings ahead of a summit in Russia in June and, on Monday night, suspending the Pentagon’s military-to-military co-operation with Russia.

In the other hand, the administration is wary of alienating keep European allies, particularly Germany and the UK, which have concerns that overly severe sanctions targeting Russia could damage their own economies. Kinzinger described the US objective as attempting to “figure out what threshold of pain they [European allies] can tolerate” to maintain a multilateral front.

The US also wants to keep its powder-dry, aware that the threat of the economic sanctions is the only way it can escalate pressure on Putin if he extends the incursion into eastern Crimea.

If the administration’s hand is forced by Congress, and sanctions are introduced pre-emptively, Washington may use the only remaining leverage it has on Moscow.

Obama encouraged Congress to help pull together a package of aid on Monday, saying it should be the “first order of business” for congressional leaders. “One thing they can do right away is to work with the administration to help provide a package of assistance to the Ukrainians, to the people and that government.”

But the president did not suggest the Congress should have any role in devising sanctions against Russia. One Democratic congressional source working on Ukraine legislation said the administration’s “strong preference” was sanctions introduced through executive authority.

Executive orders would enable Obama to quickly relax any sanctions in the event that Russia suddenly becomes more co-operative, and would also provide him with more leeway in devising a set of punitive measures that does not alienate Europe, where leaders are not meeting until Thursday to consider their own potential sanctions.

“The most important thing is for us – the United States – to make sure that we don’t go off without the European community,” Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, said on Monday. “We have to work with them. Their interests are really paramount if we are going to do sanctions of some kind. We have to have them on board with us.”

On the Senate floor on Tuesday, Chris Murphy, a Democrat on foreign affairs committee, said: “We need to send a clear message to every facet of Russian society that if you take part in this illegal, extraterritorial activity, your entire country will suffer consequences. I’m not sure that Russia will pay attention if we simply provide visa sanctions on government officials that have ordered this march on Ukraine.”

He added: “The discussion underway today is about the extent of the sanctions and whether or not they will be included in the aid package or a separate authorising legislation. There is a question now as to whether the sanctions are going to be limited to individuals that are participating in the illegal occupation of Ukraine or whether the sanctions will be broader, for instance to include sanctions against the petrochemical industry.”

An aide to senator Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the committee, said the legislation currently being drafted included authorisation for the $1bn loan guarantee, announced by Kerry in Kiev, but was also likely to include wording on sanctions.

In a recent letter to Obama, Corker and 11 other members of the committee called on the US to use “tools at its disposal, including targeted sanctions; and asset recovery targeting corruption, to dissuade individuals who would foment unrest to undermine Ukraine’s territorial integrity”.

Contributor

Paul Lewis in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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