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U.S. Increasingly Isolated On Russia Sanctions

On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed confidence that there was broad international support for imposing tough economic sanctions on Russia unless it withdrew its forces from Ukraine. It took barely a day for a vital American ally to say that it would pursue a different approach — and for evidence to emerge that ...

Sean Gallup/ Getty Images
Sean Gallup/ Getty Images

On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed confidence that there was broad international support for imposing tough economic sanctions on Russia unless it withdrew its forces from Ukraine. It took barely a day for a vital American ally to say that it would pursue a different approach — and for evidence to emerge that a second one was likely to break with the Obama administration as well.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the most powerful figures in the European Union, signaled Monday that she wanted to hold off on sanctions while pursuing a diplomatic solution to the Ukrainian crisis, not one based on the asset freezes, visa bans, and other punitive measures Kerry outlined during his appearance on "Meet the Press." Merkel’s government instead favors direct talks with Moscow and the deployment of international monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, which would establish facts on the ground in Ukraine with the aim of assuring Moscow that the rights of ethnic Russians were being respected.

In a second potential blow to the Obama administration, the BBC reported that a senior British official was photographed holding a document stating that London "should not support for now trade sanctions or close London’s financial centre to Russians." If the document is authentic, it would mean that the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron, a close U.S. ally, opposed the administration’s call for economic sanctions on Russia. Some of that could come from self-interest — wealthy Russians own some of London’s most expensive residential properties and are thought to have hundreds of billions of pounds stashed away in British financial institutions — but a Cameron defection would be a major setback for the White House.

Merkel had initially seemed to be moving in step with the administration. Berlin joined the United States and other Western powers in agreeing to skip the upcoming G8 summit in Sochi to show anger at Russian President Vladimir Putin. During a phone call with President Obama, Merkel reportedly said that Putin was "out of touch with reality."

But Merkel has been reluctant to impose sanctions on the grounds that it would undermine her own efforts to walk Putin back from the brink. Steffen Seibert, her spokesman, said the Merkel government was "entirely focused on bringing about a political process … all of us know that it’s the only reasonable way out of this crisis."

"Russian action is unacceptable, but still not too late for peaceful resolution of the crisis," Seibert added in a statement.

The differences of opinion between Washington and Berlin suggest that the Obama administration will have a hard time persuading friendly governments to impose sanctions on Russia, a major trading partner. Russia also supplies much of Europe with natural gas, and many E.U. countries worry that Moscow would cut or curtail gas sales if they imposed punitive measures because of Russia’s occupation of Crimea.

Merkel began her diplomatic push Sunday during a phone call with Putin. The two leaders, aides said later, agreed to explore the possibility of establishing an international contact group to coordinate negotiations over Ukraine’s fate as well as a monitoring group from the OSCE. Russia has said it sent troops into Crimea to protect Russian-speaking citizens from unspecified forms of violence and intimidation on the part of supporters of the new pro-Western government in Kiev.

After the call, Putin instructed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to begin talks with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on how to implement the agreement. However, Russia’s envoy to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, quickly dashed hopes that monitors could be sent to Crimea quickly. Instead, he said it could take months to prepare them and that so-called "radicals" linked to the U.S.-backed Ukrainian government might not cooperate with them.

Churkin’s comments came as Western dignitaries, including British Foreign Secretary William Hague and U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, began flooding into Kiev on Monday to show support for the beleaguered Ukrainian central government. Kerry is due to arrive in Kiev on Tuesday. In advance of the Kerry trip, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement late Monday that the Defense Department has "put on hold military-to-military engagements between the United States and Russia," including training exercises and bilateral meetings.

Meeting in Brussels Monday, E.U. ministers joined the United States in denouncing Russia’s incursion into Ukraine as "acts of aggression" that violate international law and the U.N. charter.

The Europeans threatened to consider suspending bilateral talks on visas and consider unspecified measures if Russia fails to "de-escalate." The European leaders stopped short of imposing any kind of sanctions on Moscow or on top Russian officials or businessmen.

Western diplomats, however, said the statement by the European ministers was tougher than they had anticipated, reflecting growing concern by Eastern European governments that Russia’s action in Ukraine also threatens their security. On Monday, Poland requested a NATO meeting under Article 4 of the NATO charter, which is invoked when a member of the organization perceives a threat to its security.

The dispute between Germany and the United States over whether to sanction Russia came as Churkin delivered a stern address to the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) defending Moscow’s military action as a humanitarian necessity. Churkin said Russian action was taken for the purpose of "defending our citizens and compatriots and defending the most important human right — the right to life."

Speaking during an emergency session of the UNSC, Churkin read a letter by Ukraine’s deposed pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, appealing to Putin to use military force to restore order throughout Ukraine.

In the letter, Yanukovych said that events in Ukraine in recent weeks have pushed his country to "the brink of civil war. "

"There is chaos and anarchy, the rights of people, particularly in the south east part of the country and Crimea are being threatened," Yanukovych wrote. "So in this regard, I would call on the President of Russia, Mr. Putin, asking him to use the armed forces of the Russian Federation to establish legitimacy, peace, law and order, stability, and to defend the people of Ukraine."

Until now, Moscow has cited a request for Russian military support from Crimea’s new pro-Russian prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov, as the basis for its invasion. But the March 1 letter from Yanukovych has presented the Russian leader with a possible pretext for pushing his military advance even beyond the pro-Russian peninsula of Crimea, though Churkin said no decision had yet been made.

Churkin’s address to the council prompted a blistering response from the United States and the council’s European powers, who compared Russia’s intervention in Crimea to the Soviet Union’s Cold War invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

"Russian military action is not a human rights protection mission; it is a violation of international law and a violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine," Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in the open meeting. "So many of the assertions made this afternoon by the Russian federation are without basis in reality … independent journalists continues to report that there is no evidence of violence against the Russian or pro-Russian community."

"We just heard a voice from the past. I was 15 in August 1968, when the Soviet forces entered Czechoslovakia," France’s U.N. envoy, Gerard Araud, added. "It was then the same justifications given, the same documents shown, the same allegations we just heard…. In a word, Russia rewinds Europe 40 years back. Everything is there: Soviet methods and rhetoric, brutality and propaganda."

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch