WASHINGTON – Spurred to action by the downing of the Malaysian airliner, the European Union approved dramatically tougher economic sanctions Tuesday against Russia, including an arms embargo and restrictions on state-owned banks. President Barack Obama swiftly followed with an expansion of U.S. penalties targeting key sectors of the Russian economy.
The coordinated sanctions were aimed at increasing pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to end his country’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine whom the West blames for taking down the passenger jet nearly two weeks ago. Obama and U.S. allies also warned that Russia was building up troops and weaponry along its border with Ukraine.
“Today Russia is once again isolating itself from the international community, setting back decades of genuine progress,” Obama said. “It does not have to be this way. This a choice Russia and President Putin has made.”
Tuesday’s announcements followed an intense lobbying effort from Obama aimed at getting European leaders to toughen their penalties on Russia and match earlier U.S. sanctions. Europe has a far stronger economic relationship with Russian than the U.S., but EU leaders have been reluctant to impose harsh penalties in part because of concern about a negative impact on their own economies.
However, Europe’s calculus shifted after a surface-to-air missile brought down the passenger jet, killing nearly 300 people including more than 200 Europeans. Obama and his counterparts from Britain, France, Germany and Italy finalized plans to announce the broader sanctions Monday in an unusual joint video conference.
European Union President Herman Van Rompuy and the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, said the sanctions sent a “strong warning” that Russia’s destabilization of Ukraine cannot be tolerated.
“When the violence created spirals out of control and leads to the killing of almost 300 innocent civilians in their flight from the Netherlands to Malaysia, the situation requires urgent and determined response,” the two top EU officials said in a statement.
Despite the West’s escalation of its actions against Russia, Obama said the U.S. and Europe were not entering into Soviet-style standoff with Russia.
Still, U.S. officials say sanctions already rippling through Russia are having a detrimental impact on the country’s economy. Russia’s growth projections have been downgraded, and Obama said $100 billion in capital was already expected to flee Russia even before Tuesday’s announcements.