The United States has been moving cautiously in slapping sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis, keen to keep its European Union (EU) allies on board and avoid exposing fault lines within the European bloc, analysts say.
Washington on Monday (Tuesday in Manila) unveiled a raft of new sanctions against seven more individuals with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and 17 companies mostly controlled by some of his powerful allies.
At the same time, the EU said it had added 15 more people to its blacklist accused of fomenting chaos in Ukraine. Their names will be revealed on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila).
Despite the moves, there was some frustration that Washington held back from full-scale economic sanctions against Russia’s energy, mining and financial sectors, and that rumors that state energy supplier Gazprom would be hit proved unfounded.
“I’d expected more substantial sanctions,” Steven Pifer, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, told Agence France-Presse.
“My impression is that with the European Union when you have to bring together 28 countries to consensus you’re going to get the lowest common denominator. I guess the Americans probably held back on some of the sharper sanctions because they did not want to get too far ahead of Europe,” he added.
Many European countries, notably economic powerhouse Germany, have close trade and financial links with Russia and fear Moscow could strike back as it begins to feel the economic pain from the months-long Ukraine crisis.
“Russia has done so much to escalate the crisis that the West needs to do more if we’re going to have any prospect of changing the Russian course,” Pifer said.
But he said that “at some point one might expect that the Russians might retaliate and Europe has more at stake than the United States does.”
Germany is key
Confidence in Russia’s economy has already been shaken since sanctions were first imposed last month following Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
Analysts have already warned Russia could tip into recession in the second quarter of 2014 after the economy contracted by around 0.5 percent in the first three months of the year.
Monday’s sanctions came just ahead of a visit to Washington by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with Ukraine due to top the agenda of talks with President Barack Obama on Friday.
“Given Germany’s economic and political weight, the sense here is that Chancellor Merkel has a major say. It’s also been one of the more cautious countries so far,” said Pifer.
But Harold James, professor of history at Princeton University, downplayed talk of a transatlantic rift. He said Germany, which gets 40 percent of its gas supplies from Russia, “on the whole has been pretty hawkish” about the sanctions issue.
“Some companies like Siemens which have very big Russian business have gone out of their way to say that they will conform to anything that the EU does,” he told Agence France-Presse.
And he blamed some of Europe’s slower sanctions pace on complicated EU laws, which means the “design needs to be made more water-tight.”
Indeed, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble earlier this month portrayed the Ukraine crisis as an opportunity for the European Union and the United States to revamp their relationship after the fallout of the NSA spying scandal.
“I am confident that the Ukraine crisis will help us to strengthen transatlantic ties and rediscover our common interests,” he said.
“I think the Americans understand quite well, how difficult it is for the Europeans to impose sanctions. Not only is the economic involvement with Russia much stronger in just about every country, but it’s also subject to collective decision-making,” said Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer with the German Marshall Fund.
“The Americans are putting an awful lot of restraint on themselves as they don’t want the transatlantic alliance to break down over an issue like sanctions,” he added.
EU sanctions ‘more symbolic’
Washington and Brussels were also designing their sanctions differently, Forbrig told Agence France-Presse, to meet the realities of their own political landscapes.
The European sanctions have been designed more on the basis that “these are symbolic, this is language where we communicate to Russia our discontent with the Kremlin’s actions. They are not really designed to hit anybody hard. They are more a statement of intent as it were,” Forbrig said.
“The Americans I think design their sanctions rather on the basis of what is the actual impact that they can have,” he added.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki stressed on Monday that the US and EU had been “working in lockstep” since the start of the crisis.
“We have different processes from the European Union. Our sanctions have not exactly matched before. We don’t expect they will exactly match now. But they are complementary,” she insisted.
Washington also believed that “it’s important that we do this together in part so that there’s a shared commitment, but also one nation isn’t bearing a significantly greater share of the burden as against other nations with different interests in different sectors,” a senior US administration official told reporters Monday.