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Obama's Russian sanctions too little, too late

Barack Obama
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Pressured by his GOP critics on Capitol Hill led by former 2008 presidential foe 78-year-old Sen. John McCain, President Barack Obama announced a series of feckless sanctions designed to send a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin. White House officials felt embarrassed by Putin’s March 1 annexation of Crimea, the once Russian territory handed to Ukraine in 1954 by Premier Nikita Khrushchev as a Soviet satellite. Putin bit his tongue during the Sochi Winter Olympics while U.S.-EU-backed street demonstrations toppled the Russian-backed government of Viktor Yanukovich. What irked Putin was the brazen overthrow of Ukraine’s duly elected government while he was consumed by the Sochi games. U.S. and EU officials haven’t come grips with the extent to which Ukraine’s coup d’etat was orchestrated by the CIA and other EU intelligence agencies.

Putin’s March 1 move to annex Crimea was a direct countermeasure to secure Russian interests, including its Black Sea naval base, in Ukraine. Ukraine’s new revolutionary government, led by interim President Oleksandr Turchynov and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsyenuk, shows strong anti-Russian bias. Obama’s decision announcing economic sanctions and travel restrictiosn is another inept Cold War-type “grain embargo” that once harmed American wheat farmers more than the Soviet Union. Obama hopes his example catches on in the EU where countries, like Germany, have far more to lose than just pride with Europe getting 32% of petroleum and 38% of natural gas imports from Russia. “If Russia continues to interfere in Ukraine, we stand ready to impose further sanctions,” said Obama, ratcheting up the Cold War-type threats playing into Kremlin hardliners.

McCain returned from his Ukrainian trip with all barrels blazing, ripping Obama for an inept foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere that invited Putin to seize Crimea. What’s most ironic is that Putin sat idly by while the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Most U.S. Security Council members viewed the U.S. invasion of Iraq illegal, yet didn’t object too strongly. When Putin moved the Red Army into Georgia in 2008, annexing South Ossetia and Abkasia, former President George W. Bush and his VP Dick Cheney did next to nothing, certainly not imposing economic sanctions. It’s still unclear exactly what national security interests the U.S. has in Ukraine. Russia’s national security interests are obvious to just about everyone. White House officials haven’t acknowledged a covert U.S. role in toppling the Russian-backed Yanukovich government.

Calling Putin names on global TV, McCain made matters worse for Obama, whose flagging approval ratings from his botched health care plan AKA Obamacare, leaves Democrats vulnerable. “Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country,” McCain told CNN’s Candy Crowley, ratcheting up the Cold War rhetoric. “No more reset buttons,” insisted McCain, telling the White House to no longer play ball with Putin. Democrats are scrambling before the November Midterm elections. Milking Obamacare failures, there’s a growing possibility that Democrats could lose their fragile Senate majority. New foreign policy challenges in Ukraine also haven’t helped Obama’s approval ratings. Announcing sanctions independent of the EU present problems for the White House moving forward. Whatever political fallout comes from annexing Crimea, Putin’s now in the driver’s seat.

Announcing trade and travel sanctions, Obama has pushed Putin even more to divide the U.S. from the EU on Ukraine. EU officials, especially Germany, can’t afford to rock the boat too much with Russia when it comes to energy purchases. Speaking in Ukraine as part of McCain’s bipartisan delegation, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) urged Obama to bypass Russia’s energy monopoly on the EU and Ukraine. “I mean there’s no doubt that if you cut off Russian gas to Europe, it will hurt. There’s no doubt that if you freeze Russian assets in places like Germany and Great Britain, it will hurt them,” urging of a kind of economic warfare. Putin invaded Georgia in 2008 because of U.S.-backed Georgian President Mikheil Saashkavili decision to run the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan {BTC} pipeline to compete with Russia’s Caspian Sea pipeline to supplying petroleum and natural gas to Europe.

Targeting specific members of Putin or Yanukovich’s governments for economic sanctions is exactly the wrong way to proceed dealing with Moscow. Doing something ineffectual is worse than doing nothing. If the U.S. isn’t in a position of intercede for Ukraine’s new revolutionary government, then the White House should encourage Kiev’s new regime to work it out with Russia. Since the so-called Ukrainian “Spring” started from a desire to join the EU, it should be Brussels, not Washington, meddling in Ukrainian affairs. If it turns out the CIA aided-and-abetted the Feb. 22 coup, then Putin has every right to take whatever actions to protect Russian interests. Slapping Moscow with feckless sanctions without its EU partners makes no sense. More threats of U.S. sanctions can only backfire without strong EU-backing, who must take the lead in applying pressure on Putin.

About the Author

John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.

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