The suspension of Russia from the Group of Eight nations Monday and the threat of future sanctions on major sectors of the Russian economy did little to answer one critical question: What happens if Russian President Vladimir Putin maintains the status-quo in Crimea?
The White House on Monday trumpeted an agreement with its European allies as a strong deterrent to prevent Russia from wading further into Ukraine. But Russian officials, as has been the case since annexing Crimea, downplayed the impact of punishments coming from the West.
The Group of Seven nations, meeting on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in the Netherlands Monday, did not unveil new economic sanctions against the Kremlin for annexing the Crimean region in Ukraine.
The United States and western allies announced that a G-8 meeting planned for June in Sochi, Russia, had been cancelled, with world leaders planning instead to meet in Brussels, without Russia, in retaliation for Putin annexing Crimea.
The administration promised sanctions against major Russian industries if the Kremlin exacerbated tensions in Ukraine.
But by only promising further economic threats rather than implementing them, the White House left questions over whether it had already conceded the return of Crimea to Russian control.
After the most consequential leg of Obama’s weeklong European trip, officials declined to explain exactly how they would punish Putin, saying only that Russian escalation in Ukraine would force the U.S. to move ahead with more economic penalties against the Kremlin.
“Status quo could mean more sanctions — well, it depends on how that status quo evolves, to be completely candid with you,” a senior administration official said.
“Again, to what extent is Russia seeking a de-escalation?” the official added. “To what extent are they engaged in acts that attempt to destabilize the Ukrainian government? We’ll have to assess all that going forward and calibrate our actions against that.”
Lacking the sting of additional sanctions, however, Russia brushed off the meeting snub.
“We don't believe it will be a big problem if it doesn't convene,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said of G-7 nations pulling out of the Sochi talks.
Obama has frozen assets and issued travel bans for a handful of senior Russian officials — and cracked down on one bank conducting business with high-level leaders in the Kremlin, including Putin.
But critics have accused the White House of not doing enough to deter Putin from turning his attention to areas of Ukraine beyond Crimea, or loosening his grip on the disputed peninsula.
“Again, the clearest trigger is eastern and southern Ukraine, but we’re going to have to monitor the situation as it evolves on a daily basis,” a senior administration official said on sanctioning key components of the Russian economy.
Driving the White House’s reluctance to wield a hammer against Putin is that wide-ranging economic sanctions would carry major consequences for Europe, which is heavily reliant on Russian goods and services.
Still, the Obama administration believes the mere threat of penalties for the Russian banking, energy and arms sectors will eventually force Putin to stand down in Ukraine.
“Putting these sectoral sanctions on the table sends a message to Russia to refrain from any escalation,” the senior official said, insisting the “type of status quo that we’re currently in has already brought significant sanctions.”