WASHINGTON — A notable word was missing from President Obama’s brief statement on Ukraine on the South Lawn of the White House Monday morning: sanctions.
He chided Russian President Vladimir Putin to do the right thing and assist in the investigation of the shootdown of MH17, and subtly warned that “the costs for Russia’s behavior will only continue to increase” if it does not stop backing the separatists believed to have fired the missile that struck the passenger jet.
Obama’s week is filled with fundraising — a Tuesday DNC event in Seattle, a Wednesday DCCC event in San Francisco and a Thursday DNC fundraiser in Los Angeles — but even members of his own party are filling the queue with questions about what punishment waits in store for Putin.
Especially if the investigation into the Malaysia Airlines takedown reveals that Russia was more instrumental in killing 298 passengers and crew than just supplying the Buk surface-to-air missile system to rebels.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a critic of the sanctions rollback in Iran nuclear negotiations, acknowledged on Fox News Sunday that Obama has “a tough job.”
“But I’ll simply say before the shootdown, I was an advocate of further-reaching sanctions to stop Russia’s aggression and let Putin know the consequences of continuing that form of aggression,” Menendez said. “And, clearly, President Putin created the set of circumstances and has supplied the recourses and armament to rebels, in which this tragedy could take place.”
“So, for me, I think that the West, including the United States, has to have a far more significant response than we’ve seen to date.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), one of the handful of senators who has long been critical of the Obama administration’s continued defense contracts with Russian arms giant Rosoboronexport, said in a Sunday afternoon statement that “stronger, stiffer sanctions must be applied quickly and dramatically against Russia in the wake of its aiding and abetting this massacre.”
“President Putin must be compelled to pay and apologize — pay the victims’ families through a compensation fund, and apologize to them and the world for Russia’s role in this horrific act of terrorism,” Blumenthal said. “Clear and compelling evidence points to Putin and as effectively the pernicious perpetrator of this horrific air terrorist tragedy. He armed, encouraged and incited his Russian so-called rebel agents in Ukraine. He is supporting coverup and obstruction of a legitimate investigation.”
“…Putin and those responsible for this atrocity must be held accountable.”
Furthermore, the senator said, Obama “should be aggressively rallying European allies — sending emissaries to every capital — to join in energy and financial sanctions.”
“Only joint sanctions involving the Europeans will hit the Russians where they live… The world community must take this horrific tragedy and a rallying cry for action — Putin’s Lockerbie — and join to impose accountability.”
Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), who was targeted by Russian travel sanctions for his part in a House amendment intended to block the Rosoboronexport contracts, told CNN that Europe needs to have a strong response to the attack, but the strong supporter of the White House also said the administration needs a response strategy.
“I mean, the military commander in the Eastern Ukraine region has been a colonel in GRU, the Russian secret police organization. Clearly this is controlled by Russia. These militants wouldn’t do this unless they had the blessing and operational support from the Russians. So we need to place this firmly on Putin’s desk and demand that Putin get out of Ukraine so this doesn’t happen again. If he doesn’t get out, then this kind of thing is going to happen again. It’s intolerable and we ought to say that and take appropriate action — which ought to be stronger than what we’ve seen to date,” Moran said.
“Clearly, Russia was directing this — and this alleged conversation with this Egor Strelkof, the commander in the Russian secret police, saying we hit a military plane, which turned out to be Malaysian Airlines, well, I think you can connect the dots, which leads to the Russian government in Moscow.”
And Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Obama needs to show strength as the leader of the free world.
“I think the world would very much respect his increased attention on this matter,” Feinstein told CNN today. “And I think there ought to be increased attention.”
Obama announced the day before the plane was shot down that he had just “approved a new set of sanctions on some of Russia’s largest companies and financial institutions.”
“On top of the sanctions we have already imposed, we are therefore designating selected sectors of the Russian economy as eligible for sanctions. We are freezing the assets of several Russian defense companies,” he said Wednesday in the White House briefing room. “And we are blocking new financing of some of Russia’s most important banks and energy companies. These sanctions are significant, but they are also targeted — designed to have the maximum impact on Russia while limiting any spillover effects on American companies or those of our allies.”
After that announcement, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) slammed the new sanctions as “inadequate.”
“In the pace and scope of U.S. assistance to Ukraine and the willingness to impose tough penalties on Putin, President Obama continues to act as if the U.S. does not have a direct interest in the outcome of the Ukrainian people’s struggle to choose their own destiny,” Rubio said Wednesday. “Limited actions like those announced today make U.S. threats look hollow.”
On Friday, Rubio said unchecked Russian aggression had brought the world to this point — and the attack on MH17 served as “a terrible reminder of why clear, decisive and morally unambiguous American leadership is so desperately needed in the world.”
“It is time for the United States and our allies to impose sectoral sanctions on President Putin and his government, especially against the energy, defense and banking sectors, and significantly increase our support, including lethal assistance, to the government of Ukraine which has shown itself to be the only responsible actor throughout this crisis,” the senator said. “The civilized world cannot continue to stand idly by while these types of flagrant violations of basic humanity and international order continue.”
At the White House today, press secretary Josh Earnest said “in light of this terribly tragic situation, the stakes for resolving the situation quickly have been laid bare.”
“As the president described, the international community’s collective head has snapped to attention in terms of focusing on the situation, we anticipate that the increased pressure will something that President Putin finds more persuasive,” Earnest said. “But time will tell.”
And he wouldn’t tell whether unilateral, broad sector sanctions were in the cards from the administration.
“I’m not going to telegraph any specific strategy that we have, but it is accurate to say that additional steps are being contemplated by this administration as necessary to put additional pressure on President Putin to use his influence to contribute positively to resolving the situation in Ukraine,” Earnest said. “So far, their contributions have been almost entirely negative, and we would like to see the Russians pursue a different course to change their strategy and pursue the kind of diplomatic solution that we know is capable of resolving the conflict there.”
But the Foreign Relations Committee chairman said we’ve gotten a grim demonstration of Putin’s capabilities.
“I’m not worried or thinking about what Putin will do,” Menendez said. “I’ve — we’ve seen what he’ll do. It’s what we in the West will do.”