CAPITOL HILL — A top U.S. official has defended the Obama administration’s response to the crisis in Ukraine, and has promised more sanctions against Russia if Kyiv loses more territory to separatists widely seen as backed by Moscow. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland testified on Capitol Hill, where a growing bipartisan chorus is urging tougher penalties against Russia before presidential elections in Ukraine, scheduled for May 25.
Patience with President Obama’s step-by-step approach to sanctioning Moscow is growing thin in Congress. The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, said U.S. measures targeting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle have had zero impact on Moscow.
“Since the sanctions went in place last Monday, the [Russian] stock market has risen almost 4 percent. They [Russians] are laughing it off. It has no effect whatsoever on Russia’s behavior,” said Corker.
Not so, according to Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland.
“Senator, I would disagree with you with regard to the impact of sanctions. Russia’s economy is already showing that this model [of territorial aggression] does not lead to a great Russia, it leads to a broke one. Russia’s credit rating is hovering just above junk. Fifty-one billion dollars in capital has fled Russia since the beginning of the year,” said Nuland.
Corker is one of several Republicans urging sanctions on Russian banks and other economic sectors, something President Barack Obama has not ruled out if the crisis in Ukraine intensifies. At Tuesday’s hearing, Corker repeatedly asked why such measures are not being imposed preemptively to deter further aggression by Moscow.
Nuland responded that the administration is preparing tougher sanctions in coordination with America’s NATO allies. She did not say when or under what circumstances those measures would be imposed.
Republican lawmakers are not alone in calling for a more vigorous U.S. response to the crisis in Ukraine. Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, a Democrat, urged military reinforcements for NATO states in central and eastern Europe, and tougher sanctions readied against Russia.
“I am not shy when it comes to the use of sanctions, because I believe they can be an effective tool of peaceful diplomacy, whether against Iran or Russian oligarchs who have made Moscow the home of more billionaires than anywhere else in the world,” said Menendez.
He added that assistance to Ukraine should be expedited, including providing Kyiv with U.S. military equipment such as body armor.
Later in the day, the entire Senate met behind closed doors to discuss the crisis in Ukraine and America's response.