The Cable

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 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."

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The Cable

McFaul Departure Leaves Void During Ukraine Crisis

The Obama administration is stepping up its diplomatic pressure on Moscow to withdraw from Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. One problem with that approach: Washington has no ambassador in Moscow to carry it out. 

Just days before thousands of Russian troops streamed into Ukrainian territory, Michael McFaul stepped down from his post as U.S. ambassador to Moscow -- leaving the embassy in the hands of deputy chief of mission Sheila Gwaltney, a State Department veteran who has spent much of her career dealing with Russia.

McFaul's had a rocky two-year tenure in Moscow, but diplomatic experts said his close ties to senior Russian officials would offer an important line of communication during crises like the current standoff over Crimea.

"The personal relationships an ambassador has are not something you can immediately inherit," said Matthew Asada, a U.S. diplomat and State Vice President of the American Foreign Service Association. "It's something that's developed over time."

Asada told The Cable that those relationships determine whether a U.S. diplomat can get a Russian official on the phone in the middle of the night and feel comfortable floating scenarios to resolve disputes diplomatically.

Andrew Kuchins, the director the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the lack of an ambassador was particularly risky because of the "high stakes and stress" of the escalating tensions between Washington and Moscow.

"I think it would certainly be preferable for us to have our embassy headed by an ambassador especially during a time of high stress and stakes like now," he said. "It is another asset for us on the ground to read between the lines about what the Russians are saying and how that may or may not correlate with their goals."

For now, that job falls to Gwaltney, the deputy chief of mission and former American consul general in St. Petersburg. It's not clear how long she'll be in the post as chargé d'affaires: the White House hasn't nominated a new ambassador, and any pick would then have to make its way through a divided Senate. It's also not clear who will get tapped for the job. A U.S. shortlist circulating in Russian media reports includes career diplomats John Tefft, Steven Pifer, Carlos Pascual, as well as nuclear security expert Rose Gottemoeller. Sources speaking to The Cable said Tefft was a top contender, but cautioned that no decision had been reached. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment. 

The next U.S. ambassador will have big shoes to fill, for better and for worse.

McFaul spent three years as the top Russian official on the National Security Council before heading to Moscow. He presided over an unusually tumultuous period in Russian-American relations. His achievements as ambassador included helping to broker a New START treaty to reduce the two countries' nuclear arsenals, opening supply routes through Russia for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and winning Moscow's support for an interim nuclear deal with Iran. 

But much of his tenure was also colored by dramatic disagreements between Washington and Moscow over the bloody civil war in Syria, Russia's sheltering of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, and Russian President Vladimir Putin's escalating crackdown on his country's journalists, NGOs, and pro-democracy activists. McFaul began his tenure by sitting down with members of the Russian opposition, a move Putin regarded as a clear provocation and never quite forgave.

Media outlets and journalists with ties to the Kremlin responded by having McFaul savaged in Russian state-run television stations and newspapers. Pro-Putin mobs also held raucous demonstrations outside the heavily-secured and sprawling U.S. Embassy compound. Still, diplomatic experts said McFaul's tense relationship with Putin never diminished his value to Washington.

"Mike's tenure in Moscow as ambassador was made very difficult and unpleasant at times by the Russians, creating a lot of controversy around him," said Kuchins.  "Nevertheless, Mike is an extremely experienced Russia hand, and I think the administration would certainly benefit from his insights if he were still there."

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