US Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said US sanctions against Russia have 'had very little effect.' (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — If the United States truly wants to deter further Russian military action in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, it must hit Moscow where it hurts: Russia’s lucrative and politically influential oil and gas exports to Europe.
That’s the message Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner delivered to an audience at the Atlantic Council here on Tuesday morning.
In recent weeks, the White House put together a sanctions package that limits the travel of key Russian and Crimean officials and imposes some limits on the international transactions of a Russian bank, “but quite honestly so far I think they’ve had very little effect, even to the point of being derided from the Russian side,” Warner said.
Instead of focusing on limited measures against a handful of people, “we need to be able to use these energy supplies as part of our foreign policy,” he continued.
The US Energy Department has received 20 license applications to export liquid natural gas to the Ukraine — a main Russian export — but the United States has so far approved only six. “Our call on the administration is quite simple: Expedite and approve the balance of these pending applications, or tell us in Congress why not, over the next 60 days,” he said.
Getting the licenses issued quickly “would send a long-term signal that we will stand with Europe, with Ukraine, and de-couple Putin’s ability to maintain this energy leverage point over these nations.”
Not only would energy exports to Ukraine and Europe serve to potentially weaken the Russian position in the region and hurt its economy, but American companies would also benefit, he said.
“Certain American companies want to keep the gas here, but I believe gas exports would help increase American jobs and security, [and] allow us to open up other markets that may lead to further trade opportunities.” He called on the White House “to go ahead and approve the Keystone pipeline within this time frame as well. Not directly related, but [it] would seem to me to send a strong signal” to the world that the United States is more energy independent than ever before.
Studies have shown, the senator continued, that since Ukrainians have grown accustomed to cheap, subsidized energy from Russia, the average Ukrainian uses about five times the amount of energy that a typical American does. He said US companies could step in and advise the Ukrainian government and consumers how to be more stingy with their oil and gas usage, which would then lessen the influence of energy exporters on the Ukrainian economy and society.
While tens of thousands of Russian troops continue to hold their positions on Ukraine’s eastern borders — despite Russian President Vladmir Putin’s assurance to German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday that he ordered a partial withdrawal — the NATO alliance has started to take a harder line, suspending all “practical civilian and military cooperation” with Russia, according to a statement.
At a NATO meeting in Brussels on Tuesday, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance has seen no evidence of a withdrawal and that “we are now considering all options to enhance our collective defense, including an update and further development of defense plans, enhanced exercises and also appropriate deployment.”
The United States has already sent a dozen additional F-16 warplanes and several hundred troops to Poland, and more than a dozen Ukrainian officers are taking part in the Saber Guardian war game in Bulgaria with 700 troops from 12 other European nations and the United States.
One of the concerns is that Russia uses the pretense of protecting ethnic Russian populations in neighboring countries, which was the justification for its invasion of Crimea — a move the international community has slammed as being a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
“If Russia were to assert a right to protect ethnic Russians inside other countries, it could be incredibly destabilizing,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters while flying home from Israel on Tuesday. “That’s why the Baltics are worried and why we are reassuring our NATO allies — especially the Baltics, Poland, Romania.” ■