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.
The Europeans have turned for leadership to Germany, which has the best relationship with Russia.
Though Chancellor Angela Merkel’s aides have declared an interest in asserting a more “robust” foreign policy, they have been notably cautious in the Ukraine crisis, in part to keep a separate diplomatic channel open. They have resisted proposals, for example, to kick Moscow out of the Group of 8 leading industrial nations.
Instead, they have argued for direct talks with Moscow and for setting up a “contact group,” a diplomatic committee that would keep all sides informed of developments but wouldn’t seek to mediate the crisis.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier acknowledged after multiple conversations with Russian diplomats in Geneva that he has so far made no headway, describing the talks as “difficult, long and serious.”
French and British diplomats who usually are close U.S. allies in international disputes also are “taking a softer course” on how to respond to Russia. They worry that “if they try too much to isolate Russia they will isolate themselves” in the United Nations Security Council, where Russia has veto power, said Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie think tank’s European office.
Even authorities in Poland, which this week called for consultations with NATO’s North Atlantic Council because Warsaw said it felt threatened by Moscow’s moves in the region, “fear that it’s not useful to push hard,” Techau said.
European officials have said they will halt arms sales and cancel various diplomatic and trade meetings with the Russians, including the G-8 summit that was planned for June in Sochi, Russia.
The Obama administration has suspended military ties to Russia, and is considering other moves “that will isolate Russia and will have a negative impact on Russia’s economy and its standing in the world.”
So far, administration officials have indicated that they will sanction individual members of the Russian elite who were involved in sending troops into Crimea. They haven’t made clear if they would seek broader sanctions on the Russian economy.
Weiss says that the Russians discount U.S. threats.
The White House threatened to isolate Russia in August 2008 after its military fought a five-day war with Georgia over a breakaway province, but then-President George W. Bush ultimately took little action. Five months later, newly elected President Obama proposed a “reset” in relations with Moscow.
Now when U.S. officials condemn Russia, “you get a sense of Russian indifference,” Weiss said. “It’s just not that important to them what the U.S. thinks. … They are less invested in good relations with the U.S. than at any point, arguably, since the end of the Cold War.”
Photo: Sergei L. Loiko/Los Angeles Times/MC