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Walking the line

Antje Passenheim, Washington / sst
March 7, 2014

US President Barack Obama has imposed a first round of sanctions on Russian officials such as freezing assets and issuing travel bans. It's a fine line of putting pressure on Russia while leaving room for diplomacy.


If Robert Pittenger, the Republican chairman of the House Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, had his way, the US and Western powers would impose drastic economic sanctions on Russia to drive President Vladimir Putin from power. "If we can't get Russia out of Ukraine, then let's get Putin out of Russia," he said.

According to Pittenger, draconian sanctions are the only way to get Putin to pull out from Ukraine. "I don't want [the US] to become Neville Chamberlain," he told DW, referring to the British prime minister's appeasement policy towards Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had made a similar remark on Wednesday (05.03.2014).

Putin (photo: REUTERS/Alexei Nikolskiy/RIA Novosti/Kremlin)
Sanctions against Putin are currently not up for debateImage: Reuters

Economic sanctions against Russia as outlined by US President Barack Obama were a good start, Pittenger said. Obama ordered sanctions on those responsible for military intervention in Ukraine, thus threatening Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial borders. Sanctions would include travel bans to the United States and freezing of US assets. It remains unclear, however, who would become a target of these measures.

Sanctions directly targeting Russian President Vladimir Putin are not part of the deal and are currently not up for debate. It would be a very unusual measure and would be unlikely to be the first step, sources close to the US government said.

Long-term sanctions will do the trick

But in order to effectively exert pressure, long-term sanctions had to follow, Pittenger said. The US and its European allies had to act in tandem to make these sanctions work. "If we sustain long-term sanctions with Russia, then we will cause disruption in his own country," he said. "He won't be able to look outward and be aggressive. He would have to look inward."

Russia's oil and gas industry had to be part of the picture, too. Pittenger said he realized that countries like Germany had a hard time agreeing to sanctions since their economies depend on Russia's energy supply. His committee had asked Obama to remove restrictions that are currently preventing the US from delivering liquid gas to Europe.

By extracting shale gas from the earth, the US aspires to become a net exporter of natural gas by the end of this decade. Russia has been carefully eyeing these plans. Now, a few politicians seem to see a chance in developing new business relations amid the crisis in Ukraine.

Armed servicemen stand near a Ukrainian border guard post in the Crimean town of Balaclava (photo: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
The ball is in Putin's court, Brattberg saysImage: REUTERS

"I do think the current crisis in Ukraine illustrates the problem with European energy-dependency from Russia," said Erik Brattberg of Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council. "A long-term solution must be to eventually move away from dependence from Russia towards more energy-security in Europe - whether that will come from US exports of natural gas or from somewhere else I think that remains to be seen."

In any case, the crisis in Ukraine stresses the importance of transatlantic relations as well as the need for US-EU cooperation. "The long-term solution to the crisis must be a diplomatic one, and restoring relations with Russia," Brattberg said, adding the EU needed to reconsider its neighborhood and enlargement policy.

Putin has to ease tensions

It's also important to pull together when it comes to sanctions, Brattberg told DW. Obama's measures are a good and carefully laid out first step. "Obama is trying to walk the fine line of putting pressure on Russia, but on the other hand making sure that he does not escalate the situation," he said. "I think what the president is really saying to Putin is: The ball is in your court. You have the choice of de-escalating - or we are going to impose even further sanctions."

That could include additional travel bans or a freezing of funds of Russian heads of state. But this tit-for-tat game has not always played out in the United States' favor when it comes to Russia, insiders like the former US Ambassador to Russia, James Collins, warn. Two can play that game, Collins said. And that doesn't necessarily lead to an atmosphere that helps solve the problems at hand.

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