Obama, Merkel Tie Tough Sanctions to Ukraine Elections

Obama, Merkel Tie Tough Sanctions to Ukraine Elections
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Tough international sanctions aimed at the heart of Russia’s economy may hinge on whether Ukraine’s scheduled elections can take place May 25, President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday.

The increased emphasis on the fate of elections as a trigger for new punishment emerged at the White House even as violence escalated among Ukrainians, separatists and pro-Russian extremists in Ukraine. The administration previously warned that Russian troop migration into Ukraine would prompt the next phase of economic sanctions, as yet loosely described by the United States and its European partners.

On Monday, the United States announced another in a series of sanctions against Russian government officials and oligarchs, adding 17 businesses plus restrictions on defense-related trade.

Obama -- during a 44-minute news conference with Merkel in a verdant Rose Garden -- listened attentively before echoing the chancellor’s explanation that sanctions are still weeks away as allies seek united backing for diplomacy while trying to “stabilize” Ukraine before its citizens can go to the polls.

“Should that not be possible to stabilize the situation, further sanctions will be unavoidable,” Merkel said in German. “This is something that we don't want. We have made … an effort for a diplomatic solution, so it's very much up to the Russians which road we will embark on, but we are firmly resolved to continue to travel down that road.”

Merkel ignored direct questions about Russian President Vladimir Putin, who telephoned her this week to assert Ukraine must remove its military forces from the violent southeastern region of the country. Merkel, in turn, appealed to Putin during their conversation to use his influence to secure the release of seven military monitors affiliated with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The group includes four German soldiers, all held captive by a separatist mayor in the pro-Russian city of Slovyansk.

The two leaders said the scope of additional sanctions to target Russia’s energy, financial or defense sectors remained under discussion, and Merkel, joined by Obama, emphasized the importance of collaboration and cooperation should such punishments have to be applied.

“What we're talking about here will be sectoral measures in the context of certain branches of industry,” Merkel said, noting that Europe’s dependency on natural gas is a significant consideration, even as the European Union develops initiatives that could soften any energy blow at home in the near and long terms.

“The next step is going to be a broader-based sectoral sanctions regime,” Obama agreed, choosing his words carefully before referring to “intimidation and coercion” in violence-torn Ukraine.

“We want to continue to keep open the possibility of resolving the issue diplomatically, but as Angela Merkel said, if in fact we see the disruptions and the destabilization continuing so severely that it impedes elections on May 25th, we will not have a choice but to move forward with additional, more severe sanctions,” Obama said.

The president’s impatience was evident when he said Putin remains stubbornly in defiance of international law, in violation of an agreement with Ukraine to pursue a diplomatic path, and publicly untruthful about Moscow’s role during its slow-motion annexation of Crimea.

“A few weeks ago Mr. Putin was still denying that the Russian military was even involved in Crimea. Then a few weeks later he acknowledged, `Yeah, I guess that was our guys,’” he said. “There just has not been the kind of honesty and credibility about the situation there and a willingness to engage seriously in resolving these diplomatic issues.”

Merkel and Obama made a less persuasive stab at arguing the United States and Germany are ironing out their differences when it comes to spying among allies. The disclosures by Edward Snowden last year that the NSA conducted surveillance on the phone conversations of Merkel and her top advisers created a rift that clearly remains. Germany wants the United States to end spying on German soil, including from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. The president and senior administration officials have responded that the United States has no such agreement with any ally.

The president last year announced an end to NSA surveillance of most heads of state, but didn’t offer no-spy assurances for world leaders’ top aides. Obama repeatedly tells the European public that U.S. intelligence-gathering through bulk data collection is aimed at thwarting terrorists, although U.S. officials concede that spying among friendly nations to assess other governments’ thinking is not new.    

“I think the whole debate has shown that the situation is such that we have a few difficulties yet to overcome,” Merkel said, offering guarded optimism about Obama’s commitment to “close gaps” using a new format, dubbed the U.S.-German Cyber Dialogue.

“We do not have a blanket no-spy agreement with any country, with any of our closest partners,” the president noted. “We’re not perfectly aligned yet.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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