“Sometimes I think the only strategy the administration has is getting people who talk about Ukraine to look in the mirror to make sure they practice sounding tough,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and two other administration officials.
“I really don’t see any evidence of anything other than people trying to sound tough,” he added.
Among the West’s most pressing concerns in Ukraine right now are plans by pro-Russian separatists to hold autonomy referendums in two eastern areas on Sunday; and related suspicions that Russia is trying to disrupt Ukraine’s presidential elections scheduled for May 25.
More than six weeks ago, President Obama signed an executive order providing authority for so-called “sectorial sanctions” – measures targeted specific sectors of the Russian economy – to be imposed, but despite multiple warnings, and a significant deterioration in the situation in Ukraine, that authority has yet to be actioned.
Since the March 20 executive order, the administration has been vague in spelling out exactly what would trigger the sectoral sanctions, using phrases like “if Russia continues to escalate the situation (Obama); “if Russia doesn’t change course” (Obama); “should Russia engage in further provocations” (White House press secretary Jay Carney); and “if Russia does not end its pressure and aggression on Ukraine” (Secretary of State John Kerry).
On Friday, Obama said alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House that if Russian actions in Ukraine disrupt the May 25 elections, sectoral sanctions would be the next step.
Nuland told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the goal of that statement “was to set a deterrent.”
“We’re saying that after they disrupt the election, then we’re going to consider putting some sectoral sanctions in place, is that correct?” Royce asked.
“What we're doing this week,” Nuland replied, “is trying to develop this strong sectoral package on both sides of the Atlantic so that the Russians can see it, understand it, and understand its impact if they take further action to prevent these elections from happening.”
Royce asked her if she was “satisfied” with the U.S. response so far to Russia’s behavior. “Do you think we are doing what we should be doing right now in Ukraine, to deter Russia from annexing other portions of eastern Ukraine like they did in Crimea?”
“I don’t think any of us should be satisfied with what we’re seeing on the ground in Ukraine,” Nuland said. “I think we have more work to do with our European partners to make the costs real for Russia on the sectoral side, if in fact we cannot have elections on May 25. And that’s what we’re trying to do right now.”
‘It’s having a biting effect’
At the State Department, Secretary of State Kerry defended the administration’s response to the Ukraine situation to date, saying steps already taken against Russia were “having a major impact.”
Speaking to reporters after meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton, Kerry pointed to Obama’s warning Friday about sectoral sanctions if elections are disrupted, but also said it was reasonable to try to find a diplomatic solution.
“I think most people in most places want a responsible government not to escalate to the point of creating an inevitable confrontation, but rather to find out if there’s a way to be able to find that diplomatic solution,” he said. “That’s what diplomacy is about.”
“I think President Obama has calibrated this extremely effectively,” Kerry said. “It’s having a biting effect, and we will continue to proceed in unity with our European allies to do what we think has the greatest impact and the most effect.”
At the department’s daily briefing earlier, spokeswoman Jen Psaki expressed concern about the plans by pro-Russian groups to hold autonomy referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk on Sunday.
“This is the Crimea playbook all over again,” she said, referring to Moscow’s annexation of the Ukrainian region in March, following a referendum there.
“If Russia takes the next step to reenact its illegal Crimea annexation in eastern or southern Ukraine and sends more forces over the border, harsh U.S. and E.U. sanctions will follow.”
But asked whether that meant sectoral sanctions, Psaki demurred.
“Well, obviously we have more we can tap into,” she said. “There’s a range of steps we look at. This would certainly be one of them.”