Obama administration officials defended the effectiveness of sanctions against Russia at a Senate hearing Wednesday amid concerns that public attention to the Ukraine crisis is waning as Russian President Vladimir Putin consolidates his power.
In one sign of the decreased focus on the issue, only about half of the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee bothered to attend the hearing, and many of them left early.
Three senior officials from the departments of defense, state and treasury told the panel that the sanctions imposed by President Barack Obama on Russian individuals, banks and other corporations have brought the country’s economy to the “brink of recession,” in the words of Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.
Nuland reiterated previous non-specific threats by the administration, promising “targeted, sectoral sanctions” if the Kremlin continues to support pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine.
Democratic and Republican senators alike questioned her assertions.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, senior Republican on the committee, said Russia’s main stock market has grown since March and dismissed the administration’s threats of more sanctions as “hollow.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, wondered whether some European nations’ continued work with Russia on building a natural gas pipeline represents a betrayal of multilateral sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States.
“Am I wrong to think that in some way Europe is heading in the wrong direction?” Murphy asked.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, called on the administration to impose sanctions preventing the flow of gas and oil technology into Russia, which could hamper Moscow’s ability to fulfill its growing oil-supply commitments with China.
Senators voiced concerned that as winter approaches this year and demand for gas in Ukraine and Europe rises, Russia could strengthen its bargaining hand with U.S. allies in Europe. Russia recently shut off the direct flow of gas to Ukraine, while maintaining its pipelines that flow through the country to other European markets.
“Time is on Putin’s side,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who chairs the foreign relations panel. “Putin doesn't have to win today. He only needs to generate a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine that he can exploit when the world has moved on.”
Testifying with Nuland were Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and Daniel Glaser, assistant secretary of treasury for terrorist financing.
Zbigniew Brzezinski and Stephen Hadley, former presidential national security advisers, testified to the senators on a separate panel.
“It is a fact, no longer an opinion, that Ukraine is going to be moving gradually towards the West,” Brzezinksi said.
The turmoil in Ukraine began late last year after then-President Viktor Yanukovych rejected an agreement to align the former Soviet republic’s economy more closely with the European Union, choosing instead to strengthen relations with Russia.
Current President Petro Poroshenko, who took office last month after Yanukovych fled Ukraine during massive protests and a presidential election was held in May, signed the European Union trade pact June 27.
The Ukraine crisis escalated in mid-February when Russian paramilitary troops began seizing control of government buildings in the Crimean Peninsula.
That aggression was followed by a March 16 referendum that Moscow used to claim it had annexed the region, which has a large ethnic Russian population. Since then, ethnic Russians in other parts of Ukraine have staged violent protests and tried to take control of local governments.