Beyond Sanctions, Obama Has Few Russia Options

The U.S. can squeeze Russia economically for sending troops into Crimea, but Obama needs Europe's support for sanctions to work. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with correspondent Mara Liasson.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When Russia ordered troops into Crimea, the White House was quick to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin. The U.S. immediately ordered sanctions. Putin reacted angrily. But as Emily Harris just reported, it hasn't stopped Russians from digging in. Joining us to talk about the options President Obama has and how this is playing domestically, NPR's political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hello, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, as I mentioned, President Obama ordered sanctions. He said the U.S. will suspend issuing visas to some Russian officials. There's no talk though of getting involved militarily. So, what options does the president have? What's the strategy here?

LIASSON: Those are the options. The president has said he wants to squeeze Russia economically, isolate it, hurt its economy. He's ending preparations for the upcoming G8 summit in Sochi. He is moving, as you said, to freeze the assets of Russians involved with the incursion into Ukraine and put a ban on their visas. And the idea is to hurt the oligarchs around Putin in the hopes that they would put pressure on him. But asset freezes and visa bans might not be enough and they'll only be effective if Europe joins the United States in doing that.

MARTIN: And that's the key question he needs, cooperation from the Europeans. How is that shaping up? How likely is that?

LIASSON: Well, the British say they're on the same page as the Americans if Russians continues its aggression. But so far Germany, which does a tremendous amount of business with Russia - both commercial and financial - is not. This is the problem. It's unclear what kind of cooperation the U.S. will get from its allies in Europe because the Russian oligarchs' money are such a big part of the balance sheet of English and German banks and this is a time when the economy is weak in Europe and they are more constrained from taking that kind of punitive action.

MARTIN: So, what is the fallout of this, politically speaking, back here at home? I mean, there Republicans who are saying that President Obama is in part to blame for what's happening in Ukraine, that internationally he's seen as weak and indecisive.

LIASSON: Well, there has been a tremendous chorus of criticism from Republicans - almost an I-told-you-so moment, saying this proves that the president is weak. You heard Lindsay Graham and John McCain saying if only the president had intervened militarily in Syria this wouldn't have happened, although there's no evidence of that. They're saying that his foreign policy invites aggression. However, when it comes to what Republicans think the president should actually do differently, there are not a lot of alternatives coming from the GOP. Nobody is calling for military intervention. Republicans also want sanction. Maybe they want them a little faster than the president is putting them in. They want suspension of Russia from the G8. And these all things the administration is already exploring.

I would say the critique from Republicans is more of a retrospective critique. In other words, the president's past actions, his reset with Russia failed. That's what laid the groundwork for this. The reset, of course, was the idea that if you had better relations with Russia they would help us on Iran, Syria and North Korea. But the interesting thing is that back under George W. Bush, when Russia essentially annexed a part of Georgia, there was very little criticism from Republicans, and maybe that, much more than the failure to bomb Syria, is what laid the groundwork for this.

MARTIN: And, Mara, can we just assume that say any political row like this is going to be tinged with election year politics, right?

LIASSON: Well, of course. Republicans are jockeying for the nomination in 2016. You've got a debate between Rand Paul, who's been associated with the non-interventionist wing of the Republican Party, and someone like Marco Rubio, who's been staking out hawkish foreign policy territory. You also have some politics going on on the Democratic side. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized Putin, compared his move to what Hitler did before World War II. And, of course, Clinton has been identified with that reset of Russian policy that didn't work out. Now, she's moving to become more a little more hawkish on Russia, which is ironic, since you could say she lost the nomination in 2008 because she was too much of a hawk on Iraq.

MARTIN: NPR political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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