The Cable

House GOP to Obama: Take Your Ukraine Money and Shove It

House Republican leaders fast-tracked a $1 billion loan package to Ukraine on Thursday, just hours after President Obama publicly called on Congress to stop blustering about the crisis and act.

Under a streamlined process, the House of Representatives voted 385-23 to allow the administration to guarantee private-sectors loans to Kiev's cash-strapped government. The move allows for previously appropriated funds for Jordan to be used to cover loan guarantees for Ukraine -- but does not deal with the contentious issue of punitive measures against Russia. Legislation authorizing the sanctions could be taken up as early as Friday but is more likely to be debated next week.

The vote marks the first Congressional action to bolster Ukraine, which is undergoing a geopolitical crisis following Russia's occupation of its Crimean peninsula. On Thursday, House leadership expressed frustration that it had taken heat for being a "do-nothing Congress," when it acted faster than the Democratically-controlled Senate.

"The president knew this was being voted on this afternoon and he goes into the Brady Room and says Congress has to act on my words?" a Republican House leadership aide said. "For God's sake. We're doing what you want."

In recent days, Washington has been consumed by finger-pointing over Moscow's land grab in Ukraine, with partisans on both side accusing the other of perceived foreign-policy weaknesses.

On Thursday morning, the Obama administration imposed visa restrictions on unnamed Russian and Ukrainian officials and authorized financial sanctions against Moscow. It stopped short, though, of freezing any assets of Russian officials. In the run-up to the administration's  move, Republicans ranging from Arizona Senator John McCain to Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor criticized the president for failing to get tough with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"This is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America's strength any more," said McCain.

But the fast-tracking of the Ukraine aide package caught off guard committee aides in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who still planned to introduce legislation dealing with a range of Ukraine issues, including funding for election monitoring, the $1 billion loan guarantee and punitive sanctions. "We were certainly surprised," said a committee aide. Following today's vote, the committee plans to introduce a separate piece of legislation that deals with those remaining issues. 

The ball now is in the Senate's court to hold a similar vote as the House or pass a broader piece of legislation dealing with a range of issues pertaining to Ukraine. "That's what is being worked on and discussed now," said a senior Democratic aide.

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The Cable

U.S. Targets Russian Officials' Visas, But Not Yet Their Bank Accounts

The United States took the first steps toward slapping sanctions on Russia for sending troops into Ukraine’s Crimea region Thursday, but stopped short of naming names.

The U.S. said it would deny visas to a list of Russian and Ukrainian officials it considers responsible for the incursion into Ukraine and laid out far-reaching financial sanctions that could come later.

“Anybody who is involved or complicit in violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine is as of this morning on notice that they may be targeted by U.S. sanctions,” a senior administration official said on a call for reporters Thursday morning.

The move further fleshed out the potential “costs” President Barack Obama said Russia would have to pay for taking de facto control of Crimea over the weekend. But the lack of names attached to the threatened financial sanctions could also indicate a desire not to stoke tensions, ahead of further diplomatic efforts expected Thursday.

Russian officials have indicated that they would strike back if the U.S. moved to freeze Russian assets. Lawmakers in Moscow were considering legislation Wednesday to confiscate the assets of U.S. and European companies in Russia, as a retaliatory move.

The visa restrictions the U.S. imposed Thursday are the lightest of sanctions measures the administration could have taken. Last month, the U.S. also restricted visas for Ukrainian officials it considered responsible for a violent crackdown on protesters. The State Department didn’t disclose who was on the list in either case.

The stronger tool by far would be financial sanctions that could cut off Russian leaders and companies from the U.S. financial system. The U.S. has not yet used that tool, but Obama laid out the types of individuals and entities that could be affected in a broad executive order issued at the same time as the visa ban.

The order authorizes the Treasury Department to freeze assets of “persons who have asserted governmental authority in the Crimean region without the authorization of the Government of Ukraine.” The order did not include a list of people who would be targeted, which is often part of an order authorizing sanctions. Officials said the Treasury Department could issue that list at any time, but declined to give details.

Instead the order said that the U.S. could go after anyone who threatened Ukraine’s territorial integrity, undermined democratic processes or misappropriated Ukrainian assets. The order allows the U.S. to go after not only government and military officials, but companies they own and anyone who provides “financial, material, or technological support” to Russia's actions in Ukraine.

If Treasury acts on its authority and puts out a list of names, American people, banks, and companies would then be barred from doing business with anyone on the list.

Administration officials said the measures could be ramped up or rolled back, depending on Russia’s next move.

Any move to isolate Russian officials from the financial system would be greatly strengthened by the cooperation of the European Union, but that's far from assured. Though U.S. officials said they worked in consultation with Europe on Thursday’s move, European leaders have been skeptical of using sanctions against Russia. The U.S., on the other hand, has pushed to isolate Russia economically as a way of forcing it out of Crimea.

“We believe that there is a significant vulnerability over time that should affect Russia’s calculus,” a second senior administration official said on the call Thursday.

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