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White House casts Russia sanctions strategy as battle of attrition

Reuters | Tuesday, Apr 29, 2014

US President Barack Obama calls his sanctions policy against Russia "calibrated".

WASHINGTON- US President Barack Obama calls his sanctions policy against Russia "calibrated", while his Republican rivals dismiss it a "slap on the wrist" and Russia condemns it as "illegitimate." As the White House embarks on what experts agree is a cautious approach to penalizing Russia for its intervention in Ukraine, the strategy behind the seemingly light penalties is being cast by Obama administration officials as a slow battle of attrition, chipping away at Russian President Vladimir Putin's credibility while keeping US policy in lockstep with Europe.

The deliberative policy is rooted in Obama's multilateral style of governing and a belief that the United States must not overreach in a way that could have costly consequences. But it has left Obama open to criticism from Republicans in Congress who feel he is too weak and not taking the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War seriously enough.

A third round of sanctions issued on Monday targeted seven Russian government officials, including two from Putin's inner circle, and 17 companies linked to Putin allies. Some 38 people have now been targeted for penalties since Russia's military seizure of Crimea in March. The penalties include asset freezes and visa bans.

The Obama administration's method to imposing sanctions is to slowly increase the pain on Putin's inner circle and those businesses that profit from ties to him, to force the Russian leader to back down from the crisis in Ukraine.

But even Obama admits he is not sure how successful his strategy will be. "These sanctions represent the next stage in a calibrated effort to change Russia's behaviour," Obama told a news conference in Manila as he wrapped up a week-long Asia trip.

"We don't know yet whether it's going to work."

Accusations that Obama was moving too slowly surfaced again on Monday after US sanctions hit Igor Sechin, a Putin ally who heads Russia's major oil company Rosneft, but steered clear of a more substantial target, Alexei Miller, chief of the powerful Russian gas company Gazprom.

"Until Putin feels the real pain of sanctions targeting entities like Gazprom, which the Kremlin uses to coerce Ukraine and other neighbours, as well as some significant financial institutions, I don't think diplomacy will change Russian behaviour and de-escalate the crisis," said Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee.

US officials say Miller and Gazprom could be cited in future sanctions. Given European dependence on Russian natural gas, the United States has been slow to penalize Russia's energy industry.

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