(CNN) – Sanctions imposed against Russia are working as a deterrent, President Barack Obama and other White House senior administration officials said Wednesday in a detailed defense and explanation of the U.S. response to the escalating crisis in Ukraine.
And new sanctions could be imposed as early as Friday, with key Putin allies, institutions and top oligarchs among the targets, other senior administration officials said.
Obama told CBS News Wednesday that the current sanctions are hurting Russia’s economy and will have negative long-term consequences.
“What I’ve said consistently is that each time Russia takes these kinds of steps that are designed to destabilize Ukraine and violate their sovereignty, that there are going to be consequences,” he said. “And what you’ve already seen is the Russian economy weaker, capital fleeing out of Russia. Mr. Putin’s decisions are not just bad for Ukraine, over the long term, they’re going to be bad for Russia.”
Senior administration officials are in Brussels coordinating the rollout of the new sanctions with European allies. All parties are waiting for the results of talks set for Thursday involving Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union. Secretary of State John Kerry is representing the United States in those talks in Geneva. Expectations for a breakthrough at the talks are low.
White House officials now say that sectoral sanctions – those that cut off a portion of the Russian economy - will not be enacted unless Russia attempts a full-on invasion of Ukraine. Last month, Obama signed an executive order giving the United States the power to impose such sanctions.
Administration outlines state of play in Ukraine
During meeting with journalists Wednesday, senior administration officials laid out their analysis of the militants in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s thinking and what might be next.
The groups of heavily armed, highly coordinated militants who have stormed government buildings and caused violent unrest in cities and towns across eastern Ukraine are viewed by the United States as still very small - for example, a hundred or a thousand people within a city of more than a million - and not at all reflective of the desires of the vast majority of the population there.
When asked why the United States won’t provide arms to Ukraine to assist in quickly quashing the Russia-backed elements, U.S. officials said they don’t want to risk a violent escalation or start a proxy war with Russia. The White House lauds the restraint that Ukraine itself has employed. And the administration has dismissed Putin’s claims that Ukraine is on the brink of civil war.
Obama said that Putin doesn’t want a military conflict, either, and emphasized that Ukraine should determine its relationships with other countries.
“They’re not interested in any kind of military confrontation with us, understanding that our conventional forces are significantly superior to the Russians. We don’t need a war,” he said. “What we do need is a recognition that countries like Ukraine can have relationships with a whole range of their neighbors and it is not up to anybody, whether it’s Russia or the United States or anybody else, to make decisions for them.”
The senior administration officials elaborated on their view of Putin’s mindset: The takeover of Crimea wasn’t planned, but Putin took advantage of Ukraine’s instability after the ousting of its pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. They believe Putin positioned some 40,000 troops along Ukraine’s eastern border to keep exploiting Ukraine’s vulnerabilities and to see what he might get away with. The move also provides an option to invade.
The White House believes Putin was truly surprised by the international reaction to Crimea because of previous inaction after other incidents, such as Russia’s movements into Georgia. Ultimately, they believe that Putin wants to establish a sphere of direct influence to control Ukraine’s foreign and economic policy.
Senior officials say Putin has deeply wanted two things: broader international influence and an expanded Russian economy. But his actions thus far have crushed both of those goals and in fact have pushed Ukraine far closer to alignment with the West and away from Russia. It has even potentially strained Russia’s relationship with China. In addition, Crimea, which is enormously expensive to maintain, will now bring far more burden to Russia than benefit.
The senior administration officials believe that Putin keeps initiating contact with Obama and other world leaders to show the world that he still has the ability to engage and to appear reasonable. He is also calibrating his moves to see how far he can go.
The officials said they want to keep that window of diplomacy open in continued hopes of de-escalation, even though they now say they have very little confidence that a reduction of tension will come via Thursday’s talks. The White House sees this as a fluid crisis that will evolve for a long time, and in the short term - maybe even the medium term or long term—Crimea will effectively be Russia’s.