By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s plans to impose punitive economic sanctions on Russia — potentially its strongest response to Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine — already are facing resistance from administration allies in Congress and Europe.
Although administration officials say they are prepared to freeze assets of top Russian officials and possibly target state-run financial institutions, European allies — who are heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas supplies — signaled they aren’t ready to follow suit.
Top Democrats on Capitol Hill also are split, with some, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, arguing that the administration should wait for European support to give the sanctions more bite.
“To be effective, sanctions need to be multilateral, not unilateral,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT), who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday in a statement.
Other lawmakers, including House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH), said they supported sanctions and were ready to move quickly to adopt them.
President Barack Obama sought to emphasize agreement among world leaders, saying during an appearance at a Washington public school that “together, the international community has condemned Russia’s violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.”
But key European governments, including those in Germany, Britain, France and Italy, indicated in emergency meetings in Brussels that, for now at least, they prefer other routes of persuasion.
The split underscores a broader divide between the United States and Europe, partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance for 65 years, over how to deal with Moscow.
The Europeans, closer and more intertwined economically with Russia, don’t share the U.S. enthusiasm for sanctions as a diplomatic tool, and worry that curbing trade and business could hurt them without persuading Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw troops from Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
Russia is the European Union’s No. 3 trading partner, following only the United States and China. Trade totaled $462 billion in 2012, more than 10 times America’s $40 billion in trade with Russia, mostly between banks, energy companies and consumer products concerns.
Europe has little alternative to Russian energy.
Europe’s mood “is indicative of the uphill battle in the effort to make some of these sanctions effective,” said Andrew Weiss, a former Clinton administration adviser on Russia and now vice president for research at the nonpartisan Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Sanctions will make it look like we’re responding, and will give the administration something to point to. … But I’m not sure if we’re firing off sanctions bullets that we’ll be as effective on the diplomatic side,” he said.