The Obama administration has been fighting with Congress for months, but the two sides are working together to lay the groundwork for punitive new sanctions against Ukraine.
With the violent political crisis there gathering steam by the day, the administration is working with powerful members of Congress — including one of their biggest and most vocal critics — to identify individual members of the Ukrainian government or security forces that could be targeted down the road.
A State Department official said that the administration hasn’t determined whether to implement the sanctions. Still, the fact that punitive measures are even under consideration highlights the administration’s growing disapproval of the violence spreading throughout the Ukraine — and its potential willingness to act.
"It’s a shot across the bow to those Ukrainian officials who we believe are responsible for the violence," said a congressional aide recently briefed by the State Department, one of the two government agencies that would be involved in any sanctions work.
Formally laying the groundwork for sanctions is no small task given the amount of paperwork involved in identifying the individuals responsible for the fighting and calculating and locating their assets, the aide said. Actually imposing the measures would be even tougher because it would require action both by the State Department, which would be charged with putting travel bans on key Ukrainian officials, and the Treasury Department, which would handle the financial piece.
The sanctions preparations come in response to the bloodshed touched off by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to rebuff a long-awaited trade deal with the European Union. At least five people have been killed since November in violent clashes between security personnel and the protesters who have clogged the streets of the country’s biggest cities and occupied key government buildings. The uprising is largely seen as a protest against Yanukovych’s efforts to strengthen ties with Moscow.
The U.S. Embassy in Kiev revoked the visas of several Ukrainians linked to the violence last week in response to some of the government violence. A State Department official declined to name the specific individuals targeted.
The decision to prepare sanctions, first reported by Reuters, follows a trip by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) to Kiev last month where they addressed protesters. McCain later said that passing new sanctions legislation was something Congress should consider. The administration’s decision also follows the passage of a resolution in the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday calling on all sides to refrain from violence and work toward a peaceful solution.
"This protest movement has since become a struggle between those who want a democratic future based on the rule of law for Ukraine and those who are prepared to use violence to turn the clock back," said California Republican Ed Royce, the chairman of the committee. "This resolution comes at a decisive moment in that struggle." The resolution also encourages the administration to consider targeted sanctions against individuals authorizing the use of force. The State Department briefed the committee on the sanctions package following Wednesday’s vote.
President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, also expressed support for the demonstrators’ right to free and peaceful expression. "In Ukraine, we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully, and have a say in their country’s future," said the president.
Meanwhile, the Russian government has deferred a $15 billion aid package to Ukraine as ongoing negotiations threaten to install a pro-Western government in the country. Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev said Wednesday that Russia would deliver the package "only when we know what economic policies the new government will implement."