Tiptoeing Toward More Sanctions

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Josh Rogin explains why the administration is taking so long to announce new sanctions on Russia in response to its provocations in Ukraine:

There is still some internal disagreement inside the Obama administration over whether to proceed with sanctions against broad sectors of the Russian economy or with more targeted sanctions against Russian politicians, oligarchs, and perhaps some of the institutions those politicians and oligarchs are connected to.  So far, the U.S. has sanctioned 31 Russian individuals and one Russian bank. U.S. officials believe the sanctions against Putin’s business associates have had some effect and could be expanded.

Stefan Wolff sticks up for the cautious approach:

[T]he incremental toughening-up of the West’s responses keeps the door open for diplomatic solutions and has not fallen into the trap of a tit-for-tat escalation, which is difficult to step back from and makes face-saving exits for both Russia and the West ever more difficult while being played out on the back of the people of Ukraine.

The talk of new sanctions gives at least a limited hope to the four-party talks in Geneva scheduled for Thursday, and were apparently the focus of a phone call between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Putin on Tuesday night. The mere consideration of additional sanctions does not compel Russia to a response, and in fact may offer Moscow an incentive to participate. In turn, it leaves the US and EU with options, depending on the outcome of the talks, which could be as little as an agreement to meet again in the same format.

Insisting on the possibility of a diplomatic way forward, as the West and Russia both continue to do, may not be much at this stage, but it is better than the alternative of walking straight into a military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine.

But John Hudson and Shane Harris suspect that John Brennan’s surprise visit to Kiev points to something more:

The administration’s reluctance to militarize the conflict and impose harsher sanctions on Russia has angered hawks in Congress who are demanding more intelligence-sharing between Washington and Kiev as well as weapons transfers. “We ought to at least, for God’s sake, give them some light weapons with which to defend themselves,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Face the Nation on Sunday. “They won’t even share some intelligence with the Ukrainian government.”

Brennan’s visit appeared to raise the level of American involvement, even if not in the form of military aid. In the past few weeks, Ukraine has boasted of its success in rounding up Russian agents and provocateurs, particularly in the south of the country, where Russian forces are in control of Crimea, and in the east, where protesters believed to be working in coordination with Russian security forces have stormed Ukrainian government buildings. Former U.S. intelligence officials said that Ukraine has a generally credible and sophisticated domestic security service. But the sudden surge in arrests of suspected Russian agents signals a greater level of information-sharing from the Americans, former officials said.

Larison dumps on the idea of sending weapons to Ukraine:

I suppose it would make some Western interventionists happy that the U.S. was “doing something,” but I’m not sure who else would be encouraged by a decision that would be simultaneously provocative and useless. It would be provocative because it would deepen U.S. involvement in the conflict, and that would only encourage Russia to continue its agitation and incursions. It would be useless because the Ukrainian military is in no condition to fight. Even some of the advocates for sending arms to Ukraine have acknowledged the Ukrainian military’s lack of readiness and training. If U.S. shipments of arms encouraged Ukraine to try to fight a war that it couldn’t win, it would make things even worse and help give Russia a pretext for a larger military intervention.

Lastly, Ryan Avent fears that a more forceful response would carry the unacceptable risk of starting a major war:

There are a couple of actions that might alter Mr Putin’s payoff structure. One would be to make threats that are both credible and a real deterrent to Russia. If America promised to counter any further aggression by locking Russia out of the global financial system (as it did to Iran) that might work, given that the policy would mean relatively minor economic costs for NATO and enormous and immediate economic pain for Russia. Another option would be to put American soldiers in harm’s way, so that Russia could not invade NATO territory without directly harming American military personnel. Given that America could not help but respond forcefully to an attack on its own people, such a move might render the NATO guarantee toothy. Not toothless. So, basically, man the NATO-Russian border with American troops.

The problem in both of these cases is that—given that we’re not exactly clear on Mr Putin’s utility function and political constraints—there is some not-insignificant risk that either would make war more likely, and possibly much more likely.

(Photo: Armed pro-Russian men wearing military fatigues gather by Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC) as they stand guard outside the regional state building seized by pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk on April 16, 2014. Ukraine’s Western-backed prime minister on April 16 accused Russia of erecting a new ‘Berlin Wall’ that threatened European security. ‘Today’s events… are starting to endanger Europe and the European Union. It is now clear that our Russian neighbours have decided to build a new Berlin Wall and return to the Cold War era,’ Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a government meeting. By Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)