Senators slammed State, Defense, and Treasury department officials Wednesday for not acting on U.S. threats to further sanction Russia if Moscow didn't help calm the crisis in Ukraine and stem the flow of arms across its border.
"I look at what the standards were.… I see no advance in any of those standards, so what are we waiting for?" Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) asked. The Wednesday morning hearing marked the second time he has publicly challenged Barack Obama's administration on a major foreign-policy issue -- the other being it's handling of Iran.
Less surprisingly, Tennessee's Bob Corker, the committee's top Republican, joined Menendez in pounding the administration for inaction on the sanctions front.
"I think that our country, acting like such a paper tiger to the world on this and so many other fronts, is doing incredible long-term damage to our nation," he said.
Senators pushed for stronger sanctions against Russia to curb Moscow's support of separatist militants in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine's military has recently advanced against the armed separatists after President Petro Poroshenko called off a failed cease-fire and ordered troops to take back cities that had fallen to the separatists. Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far rebuffed pleas from the besieged rebels for Moscow to send forces, but some Western leaders still question his long-term motives. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned Tuesday, July 8, that Moscow was being duplicitous in Ukraine by publicly advocating a cease-fire and covertly giving arms to the rebels.
"There's no doubt that Russia is heavily engaged in destabilizing eastern Ukraine, and they continue their activities," Rasmussen told the New York Times.
After Russia annexed Crimea, Washington froze the assets of 45 officials and business associates close to Putin, as well as a handful of companies and banks associated with them. The United States has dangled, but so far not imposed, broader sanctions against Russian industries, such as the energy and defense sectors, which would be much more damaging to the Russian economy but could also stymie the global economy. Russian officials threaten retaliation if the West follows through.
"If the situation continues to develop and sectoral sanctions are imposed, it will be necessary to prepare more serious countermeasures," Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak said Tuesday on the ministry's Facebook page, according to Bloomberg.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Russia at the end of June to disarm the Ukrainian separatists within hours or face sanctions. At the hearing, senators asked administration officials what the holdup is.
Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland agreed that there has been no progress, but argued that sanctions would be more effective with the cooperation of European leaders. However, they're reluctant to use economic weapons against Russia for fear of the collateral damage to the still shaky EU economy.
"We have not seen progress, so in that context, we are continuing to prepare the next round of sanctions," Nuland testified.
Corker said he was "embarrassed" by the administration's "hollow threats" and pressed Nuland on whether the United States is willing to act alone.
"What's really driving our sort of feckless sanctions policy right now?" Corker asked.
Acting alone might not change Russia's policies, Nuland said, and would hurt U.S. companies because European corporations would continue doing business with Moscow.
"We are quite clear that we have not seen the results that we are seeking from Russia, so we are now talking to the Europeans about when it is appropriate to move together," Nuland said.
Photo by KAREN BLEIER/ AFP/ GETTY