U.S. senators were split over when to impose new sanctions on Russia, with Republicans saying President Barack Obama should not wait until Ukraine’s upcoming election before slapping Moscow with sector-wide penalties.
The White House has said it remains prepared to impose biting new sanctions on Russia, which has annexed the Crimean peninsula and furthered its aggression in unrest-plagued eastern Ukraine, should its forces disrupt Ukraine’s May 25 poll.
“If we don’t act now and wait til the elections, my fear is it’ll be too late,” Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte said as she and other lawmakers emerged from a classified briefing on Ukraine.
“I continue to remain very unsatisfied by the insufficiency of the administration’s response to what’s happening in Ukraine,” including Washington’s refusal to provide “anti-tank” military weaponry to Ukraine forces to battle Russian-equipped insurgents, she said.
Close Ayotte ally Senator Lindsey Graham said he already saw a green light for Obama to tighten the screws on the Russian economy immediately, saying the standard of disrupting the Ukrainian vote “has already been met.”
“An election on may 25th is almost impossible in the east,” Graham told reporters.
“There are so many cities and buildings occupied that it would be very difficult to have a free and fair election given what Russia has already done. I think Russia has effectively dismembered the Ukraine.”
Senate Democrat Chris Murphy agreed that Russian interference has escalated, with Russians “on the ground in eastern Ukraine,” but it stopped short of meeting the threshold of preventing an election.
“The reality of the situation is that as many building as these provocateurs are occupying, there is still the ability to have a free and fair election even in places like Odessa and other parts of eastern Ukraine.”
Moving ahead with sanctions unilaterally before the election, without being joined by Europe which has a closer economic relationship with Russia, “may harm our security interests, not advance them,” he said.
Some 100 election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation of Europe were already on the ground in Ukraine, with another 900 expected, as the OSCE called for a ceasefire for the poll.
Moscow dismissed Ukraine’s plans to hold its election amid the spiralling violence as “absurd.”
But Washington was counting on that election going ahead, Senator Dick Durbin said.
“If it does not, it’s going to I think result in a much stronger response from the West, not just the United States.”
The chamber’s number two Democrat said that while he wanted to see tough measures against Moscow, it was vital to get Europe on board first.
Graham, meanwhile, said sectoral sanctions against Russia would hurt the US economy.
“But the price we would pay, I think, would be worth it to bring about some stability and make Russia pay a price.”
[Image via Agence France-Presse]