WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama will sign legislation imposing new economic sanctions on Russia, the White House said Tuesday, as the U.S. claimed some credit for sparking Moscow’s roiling currency crisis and moved to deepen the pain.
Still, White House officials acknowledged there were no guarantees Russia’s economic woes and another round of sanctions would compel President Vladimir Putin to curtail aggressive actions in Ukraine. The Russian economy has been in a downward spiral for months, but Putin has managed to maintain political support at home.
“The aim is to sharpen the choice he faces,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said of the sanctions. He said Obama was likely to sign the bill this week. The measure cleared Congress late Saturday.
Obama’s support came as the Russian ruble continued its precipitous fall. The impact of the Western sanctions has been compounded by plummeting oil prices, leading Russia’s Central Bank to announce a massive middle-of-the-night interest rate increase Tuesday in an unsuccessful bid to stabilize the currency.
Obama economic adviser Jason Furman said Russia was grappling with a crisis of its own making.
“The combination of our sanctions, the uncertainty they’ve created for themselves with their international actions and the falling price of oil has put their economy on the brink of crisis,” Furman said. “That gives you only bad choices.”
Earnest said the president has concerns about the measure but feels it gives him “flexibility” in carrying out lawmakers’ stipulations. The legislation includes a waiver allowing Obama to forgo the penalties if doing so was in U.S. national security interests. Administration officials wouldn’t say whether Obama planned to exercise the waiver.
The legislation has widespread bipartisan support on Capitol Hill but has worried Europe, where leaders fear unilateral U.S. action will undermine the West’s united front against Moscow.
For months, the U.S. and European Union have sought to enact sanctions against Russia in tandem. But Europe, which has a far more extensive economic relationship with Russia than does the U.S., has largely reached its limit for enacting broad sanctions against the Russian energy industry and other key economic sectors unless the Kremlin ramps up its actions in Ukraine.
However, in an apparent attempt to maintain some Western unity as Obama signs the legislation, a Western diplomat said the U.S. and EU were preparing similar packages of trade and investment bans in Crimea, the strategically important peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine earlier this year. Those penalties could be announced in the coming days, according to the diplomat, who was not authorized to discuss the pending action publicly and insisted on anonymity.
Following the takeover of Crimea, Kremlin-backed rebels began occupying cities in eastern Ukraine, near Russia’s border. The West has accused Russia of supplying and supporting the rebels.
Ukrainian officials have been pressing the U.S. to supply its military with weapons and ammunition to fight the Russian-backed forces. Obama has resisted those requests because he fears lethal assistance would antagonize Russia and perhaps spur Moscow to launch a full-scale invasion.
The legislation gives the president the authority to send Ukraine anti-tank weapons, counter-artillery radar and tactical surveillance drones. Administration officials said Obama was not expected to act on that authority.
The bill does require the president to impose penalties on state-owned arms dealer Rosoboronexport and other Russian defence companies tied to unrest in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Syria, unless the president invokes his waiver authority. The sanctions would be extended to people and entities helping the companies.
White House’s sometimes chafe at congressionally-mandated sanctions because revoking the penalties requires legislative action. Obama has told Putin he would roll back U.S. sanctions if Russia stopped meddling in Ukraine, but keeping that promise would potentially be more cumbersome for penalties passed by Capitol Hill.
Russia analysts say it’s unlikely Putin will shift his calculus on Ukraine solely because of sour economic indicators or another round of sanctions. But Matthew Rojansky, a scholar at the Wilson Center, said that if the currency crisis starts hurting the Russian public’s ability to buy food or heat homes, Putin could be forced to act in order to stem a political crisis.
“The logic is not that Putin is going to be persuaded suddenly that he’s wrong,” Rojansky said. “What is going to happen is the ground is going to shift under Putin.”
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Matthew Lee in Washington and Bradley Klapper in London contributed to this report.
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