Obama persuades a chary EU about Russia sanctions

In an interview with the Volksrant a Netherlands daily – President Barack Obama appeared eager to convey his conviction that the current crisis in Ukraine is not a “zero-sum game” between East and West. Even while Russian military and paramilitary forces have now overrun a third Ukrainian military facility, Obama assured, "The United States does not view Europe as a battleground between East and West, nor do we see the situation in Ukraine as a zero-sum game. That’s the kind of thinking that should have ended with the Cold War." 
 
He added, "The Ukrainian people do not have to choose between East and West. On the contrary, it’s important that Ukraine have good relations with the United States, Russia, and Europe. As I’ve said, the future of Ukraine ought to be decided by the people of Ukraine." As for piling on more sanctions on Russia, Obama said “There have to be consequences," if the situation escalates. "And if Russia continues to escalate the situation," Obama continued, "we need to be prepared to impose a greater cost." 
"In all my discussions with European leaders, my message will be that Russia needs to understand the economic and political consequences of its actions in Ukraine," Obama told the Volksrant.
 
Obama’s sanctions, so far, have frozen the U.S. assets of seven Russian and four Ukrainian officials. On March 21, the EU then sanctioned twelve of Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle, including his  Deputy Prime Minister. The EU has now placed sanctions on 33 Russian and Ukrainian officials, including visa bans and asset freezes. Obama wants tougher European sanctions on Russia, even while he says Europe is not a battleground for a renewed East-West confrontation. 
European leaders fear that sanctions will adversely affect their economies. Also, the EU currently buys about one-third of its natural gas from Russia. Obama said he is aware that sanctions will have a ripple effect, worldwide. "We cannot have countries purporting to annex parts of independent nations," he said in the interview. "These aren't easy choices. We would have preferred it not come to this. But Russia's actions are simply unacceptable. There have to be consequences. And if Russia continues to escalate the situation, we need to be prepared to impose a greater cost."
 
Obama said, while visiting Amsterdam’s famed Rijksmuseum with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Ruute, that Europe and the United States are united in resisting the imposition of Russia’s will over the people of Ukraine. Obama and Rutte spent a "considerable amount of time," said the U.S. president, in discussions about the Ukraine and the U.S./Europe alliance. The Dutchman said that both leaders are agreed that Russia is in "breach of international law."
 
Before continuing his ravel to The Hague for a summit on nuclear security, Obama will have a pow-wow with Chinese President Xi Jinping and then with Group of Seven leaders. China is now a key player in the confrontation over Ukraine, since it has close ties with Russia. Whether China can influence Russia over Ukraine remains to be seen. Currently, the U.S. and Europe are relying on Russia’s cooperation on other international issues, such as: Iran’s nuclear weaponization program, as well as Syria’s civil war and the decommissioning of its chemical weapons. Obama averred that Russia is responsible for overseeing an agreement to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile. Said Obama, "What's deeply troubling is that Russia's support for the Assad regime has made the regime less inclined to engage in serious negotiations on a political transition to end the conflict. So long as Russia gives material support to Syria, a political solution is harder."
 
On March 25, Obama will go to Brussels to meet with EU and NATO leaders and then to Rome for a visit with Pope Francis and Italian leaders. The presidential junket ends with a visit with the Saudi Arabian sheikh, Abdullah. 


Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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