Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was speaking almost four months after President Obama signed an executive order providing authority for sectoral sanctions. Since he did so on March 20, administration officials have threatened on multiple occasions to impose them unless Russia changes course in Ukraine.
“We are ready to impose more costs, including targeted sector-specific sanctions, very soon if Russia does not decisively change course and break its support for separatists,” Nuland told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.
Nuland, along with officials from the Defense and Treasury departments, was updating the panel on the situation in Ukraine, where Russian-armed and funded separatists continue to occupy some of the areas they seized almost three months ago, despite recent gains by Ukrainian government forces. Russia also continues to control Crimea, which it annexed in March after a Moscow-backed referendum rejected by the West.
Nuland said the U.S. and the European Union (E.U.) had “imposed repeated rounds of sanctions to increase the cost Russia pays for its choices.”
Yet the most significant sanctions available to the administration, those against key sectors of its economy, remain in the arsenal, unused.
“We know that there’s Russian military equipment on the ground in eastern Ukraine – you all know that, you’ve said it publicly,” the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), told Nuland. “They’re funding separatists. What else is it that we need to see happen and know happen before we actually put biting sanctions in place?”
Corker called the sanctions policy “feckless.”
“I really feel like the sanctions threats have been very hollow, and candidly have some of the same characteristics of the ‘red line’ we talked about in Syria.”
While he respected Nuland’s service, Corker said, he was “embarrassed’ on her behalf.
“It has to be very frustrating to continue to wake up in the mornings and look in the mirror and practice talking tough, but know that nothing’s going to happen.”
Corker voiced concern that the U.S. was moving towards a situation where, despite President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine and continued control of Crimea, there will be a return to “business as usual.”
Waiting for the Europeans?
Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) pointed out to Nuland that Russia had failed to meet a list of U.S. and E.U. expectations, including an end to all support for separatists, controlling the border between Russia and separatist-held areas in Ukraine, and pressurizing the insurgents to release hostages.
“So, what are we waiting for?” he asked.
Nuland in reply spoke for several minutes, referring to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s desire first to try a peace initiative – an initiative she acknowledged had failed, as separatists grabbed more territory and Russian weapons continued to flow into the area.
“We are continuing to prepare the next round of sanctions,” Nuland continued. “As we have said repeatedly and as the president has said, these sanctions will be more effective, they will be stronger, if the U.S. and Europe work together.”
Interrupting her, Menendez asked again, “What are we waiting for?”
Nuland said the U.S. was continuing to talk to the Europeans about “the right moment for [sectoral] sanctions” and was waiting for the E.U. leaders to have a last meeting next week before a summer break.
Menendez asked whether, if the E.U. leaders did not take a decision then, the U.S. would then over the summer simply “stay on the sidelines waiting for the Europeans?”
Nuland said Obama had made clear that the preference is to work with the E.U. but “if necessary, we will act on our own.”
During her interaction with Corker, Nuland made a case for the effectiveness of those sanctions that were put in place earlier.
She said there was a time when 40,000 Russian troops were on the Ukraine border, but “we threatened sanctions and those troops moved back.”
“That is absolutely untrue,” Corker interjected, pointing out that the troops had in fact stayed on the border for weeks, while Russian claimed they were being withdrawn and NATO disputed that. “That is absolutely not true what you just said.”
“There was a moment when we had 40,000 combat units ready to move,” Nuland replied. “A lot of them moved back, but you’re not wrong that we have a significant number returned.”
Some members of the committee expressed concern that as winter approaches, Russia will be in an even stronger position to use its natural gas supplies to Ukraine and Europe, for leverage.
Europe depends on Russia for more than a third of its natural gas needs, and much of it flows by pipeline via Ukraine. Critics have accused Russia for years of using its energy resources for political leverage, with prices hiked or supplies cut during disputes.
That dependency has been cited as a key reason why countries like Germany have been so reluctant to offend Russia in the past over contentious issues like putting Ukraine and Georgia on a path to NATO membership.