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Obama, Congress takes action with Russia sanctions and Ukraine aid

In less than a week after President Barack Obama warned Russia that there would be "costs for any military intervention in Ukraine," on Thursday, March 6, 2014 the president followed through on his warning slapping unilateral travel and economic sanctions on Russians and Ukrainians involved in the week-old Russian military intervention and the call for a referendum on Crimea's succession from the Ukraine to join Russia, while the House of representatives passed an aid package for Ukraine, Obama closed his day trying to reason with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone call that failed to result in any compromise.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks announcing sanctions against Russian military intervention in Crimea, James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, White House,  Mar. 6, 2014
President Barack Obama delivers remarks announcing sanctions against Russian military intervention in Crimea, James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, White House, Mar. 6, 2014
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Soon after the Crimea parliament stated they want to belong to the Russian Federation and announced a March 16 referendum to succeed and join Russia, President Obama announced the sanctions in some brief remarks to the press on early Thursday afternoon in the James Brady Briefing Room. The limited unilateral sanctions are visa restrictions, denying travel visas to the United States, and "blocks financial transactions" at American institutions and American owned financial institutions abroad, the U.S. can also freeze assets and refuse doing business with Russian businesses, and prevent them from operating in the U.S. The sanctions aim to "impose a cost" on those involve in violating Ukraine's sovereignty, and will apply to Russians, but also Ukrainians that circumvent Ukrainian government control.

During his remarks Obama indicated that the referendum violates both "Ukraine's constitution and international law." The president reiterated; "Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine. In 2014, we are well beyond the days that borders can be redrawn over the head of democratic leaders."

Obama explained the sanctions; "The order does not target the country of Ukraine, but rather is aimed at persons - including persons who have asserted governmental authority in the Crimean region without the authorization of the government of Ukraine - who undermine democratic processes and institutions in Ukraine." President Obama promised that "if this violation of international law continues the resolve of the United States and our allies and the international community will remain firm." The sanctions are in addition to the ones already in place for those that violated human rights "relat[ing] to political oppression."

After President Obama made the announcement, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney took questions from the press, and stated; "the United States is pursuing and reviewing a wide range of options in response to Russia's ongoing violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

The House Foreign Relations Committee does not think the sanctions Obama imposed go far enough and wants economic sanctions placed on Russia as a country. While Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner's, R-OH spokesman Brendan Buck responded; "We welcome this first step, but remain committed to working with the administration to give President Obama as many tools as needed to put President Putin in check as well as prevent Russia from infringing on the sovereignty of any of its other neighbors." Many Republicans think sanctions do not go far enough and have criticized Obama's foreign policy.

After imposing sanctions on Russians, President Obama spoke in the afternoon on Thursday, March 6, to Russian President Putin on the phone. The hour-long conversation was not very constructive. According to the White House read-out of the phone call; "President Obama emphasized that Russia's actions are in violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, which has led us to take several steps in response, in coordination with our European partners."

According the White House, Obama laid out a diplomatic solution to the issue with Crimea; "President Obama indicated that there is a way to resolve the situation diplomatically, which addresses the interests of Russia, the people of Ukraine, and the international community. As a part of that resolution, the governments of Ukraine and Russia would hold direct talks, facilitated by the international community; international monitors could ensure that the rights of all Ukrainians are protected, including ethnic Russians; Russian forces would return to their bases; and the international community would work together to support the Ukrainian people as they prepare for elections in May."

The phone call concluded "that Secretary Kerry would continue discussions with Foreign Minister Lavrov, the government of Ukraine, and other international partners in the days to come to advance those objectives." This was the president's second unproductive conversation with Putin in a week, Obama last spoke to the Russian president for 90-minutes on Saturday, March 1.

At the same time President Obama was dealing with Russia, Congress worked to pass an aid package to help Ukraine's economy, which Obama had requested. The House of Representatives passed with a bipartisan vote of 385-23 a $1 billion loan to the Ukrainian government. Republicans were the only ones to oppose the loan with 23 voting against the measure, meanwhile 194 Republicans voted for the bill along with all 191 Democrats.

Despite some Republican opposition, Speaker Boehner, R-OH was pleased with the vote issuing a statement that read; "The House's swift, bipartisan action today reflects America's solidarity with the Ukrainian people. This is only a start on fulfilling our commitment to provide the president as many tools as needed to keep President Putin in check and protect the sovereignty of Russia's neighbors. In the coming days, the House will work to leverage every available resource - including American-made energy - to strengthen Ukraine and our allies in Europe."

According to Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee the bill will "authorize funds to provide at least $1 billion in loan guarantees to provide structural support to Ukraine's economy, as well as authorize technical assistance for energy reforms, support elections, strengthen civil society, combat corruption and assist Ukraine in the recovery of stolen assets."

Earlier in the day, Speaker Boehner during his press conference at the Capitol promised the House will further pressure Russia. Boehner bluntly said; "You've heard me call President Putin a thug. That's because he is, and he's counting on the United States to sit back and watch him do and take whatever he wants. We remain committed to working with the administration to give President Obama as many tools as needed to put President Putin in check and prevent Russia from infringing on the sovereignty of any of its neighbors." According to USA Today Boehner wants the Obama Administration to increase "U.S. exports of natural gas in order to undercut Russian energy sales."

Secretary of State John Kerry was in Ukraine on Tuesday, March 4 to find a diplomatic solution, speaking first with the foreign minister of Ukraine and then Russia in meetings in Rome on Wedenesday, March 5 and then Thursday, March 6 trying to defuse the situation. Kerry also promised Ukraine the $1 billion in aid the House subsequently passed and "energy assistance." Additionally, Kerry promised that the International Monetary Fund will provide loans and U.S. will give technical assistance for Ukraine's National Bank, Finance Ministry and their upcoming elections.

Kerry while in Rome meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke to the press and commented on attempting a diplomatic resolution and the unilateral sanctions; "The choices that Russia has made escalated this situation and we believe that Russia has the opportunity now, together with the rest of us, to make the right choices in order to deescalate…. Crimea is part of Ukraine. Crimea is Ukraine…. While we reserve the right to take steps beyond what we've announced today, our preference is to get back to a normality and get back to a place where the rights of the people will be respected. "

After unveiling his budget for fiscal year 2015 on Tuesday, March 4, President Obama reiterated the U.S.'s position; "We stand on the side of history that I think more and more people around the world deeply believe in: the principle that a sovereign people, an independent people are able to make their own decisions about their own lives. And you know, Mr. Putin can throw a lot of words out there, but the facts on the ground indicate that right now he's not abiding by that principle. There is still the opportunity for Russia to do so, working with the international community to help stabilize the situation. And we've sent a clear message that we are prepared to work with anybody if their genuine interest is making sure that Ukraine is able to govern itself."

While meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House Oval Office, on Monday, March 3 President Obama again commented on the situation in the Ukraine, saying; "If, in fact, they continue on the current trajectory that they're on, that we are examining a whole series of steps - economics, diplomatic - that will isolate Russia and will have a negative impact on Russia's economy and its standing in the world. Over time this will be a costly proposition for Russia, and now is the time for them to consider whether they can serve their interests in a way that resorts to diplomacy as opposed to force…. I think the strong condemnation that it's received from countries around the world indicates the degree to which Russia's on the wrong side of the history on this."

Last Friday, Feb. 28, 2014 President Obama made his first comments on Russia's military intervention in the Ukraine in the James Brady Briefing Room, where he declared in his brief remarks; "The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine."

Obama continued commenting on Russian troops' involvement in the Ukraine; "We are now deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine. Russia has a historic relationship with Ukraine, including cultural and economic ties, and a military facility in Crimea, but any violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia, or Europe. "

The president concluded that the Ukraine has to determine their own issues without foreign intervention; "It would represent a profound interference in matters that must be determined by the Ukrainian people."

President Obama spoke on the phone to western leaders and allies over the weekend on March 1 and 2 including French President Francois Hollande and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and then British Prime Minister David Cameron, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and German Chancellor Angela Merkel where "The leaders expressed their grave concern over Russia's clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity." Subsequently the "G-7" nations; U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom issued a statement; "We call on Russia to address any ongoing security or human rights concerns that it has with Ukraine through direct negotiations, and/or via international observation or mediation."

Since Obama issued first statement on Russia's military intervention the Ukraine, trade talks and military exercises have been suspended. The Group of Eight halted preparing for the June G-8 Summit in Sochi, and NATO "suspend[ed] a joint mission with Russia."

The Russian military intervention began after over three months of protests in Kiev over Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refusing to align with the European Union in trade and instead pursued closer ties to Russia and accepted a bailout from Russia. The protests resulted in 80 deaths since November 2013. Yanukovych was subsequently deposed on Feb. 22, Arseniy Yatsenyuk was named the new interim prime minister, and elections set for May 25. Russian President Putin believes Yanukovych is still the rightful Ukrainian leader, and justified the military presence and intervention by stating Russia is protecting the human rights of Russians in Crimea.

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Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.