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Obama Lays Groundwork For Sanctions Against Russia


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. We begin this hour with the unfolding crisis in Ukraine over the Crimean Peninsula. The White House says President Obama and Russian Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone today for an hour. President Obama pressed for a diplomatic solution that would involve bringing Russia and Ukraine to the table for direct talks. There's no word yet on how Putin responded. Earlier today, President Obama ordered economic sanctions in retaliation for Russia's military action in Crimea.

NPR's Scott Horsley has more.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Obama's executive order authorizes economic sanctions against anyone who threatens the sovereignty of Ukraine, misappropriates that country's state assets or tries to undermine democratic institutions. Obama says the State Department is also stripping travel visas from individuals thought to be responsible for Russia's military action.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: These decisions continue our efforts to impose a cost on Russia and those responsible for the situation in Crimea.

HORSLEY: So far, the administration has not publicly identified the individuals targeted by the new sanctions. Obama is urging Russia to dial back its military presence in Crimea. Otherwise, the administration says sanctions could be ratcheted up.

OBAMA: If this violation of international law continues the resolve of the United States and our allies, and the international community, will remain firm. Meanwhile, we've taken steps to reaffirm our commitment to the security and democracy of our allies in Eastern Europe.

HORSLEY: Next week, for example, the U.S. will send F16 fighter jets to central Poland to take part in an expanded military exercise. Obama says the U.S. and its allies are working together to present a unified response to Russia's action. But members of the European Union are divided over just how robust that response should be.

The EU stops short of issuing its own economic sanctions or travel restrictions today. And while the EU's president says those moves are possible if Russia doesn't back down, Charles Kupchan, of the Council on Foreign Relations, says it won't be easy.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: One problem is that the European Union relies heavily on Russian gas. And so, I think the Europeans are going to be very careful about doing something on the economic front that could come back to bite them.

HORSLEY: Administration officials say the U.S. has been working for years to help Europe diversify its energy sources. And the continent is less dependent on Russian gas than it used to be. Republican House speaker John Boehner says the U.S. could go further by speeding up permits for facilities to export liquefied natural gas from this country.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: Russia has an energy stranglehold on much of Europe and has been using it to its own advantage. And there's growing consensus that ending this de facto export ban would not only keep Putin in check, but help our economy as well and help our allies in Europe.

HORSLEY: In general, Boehner sounded a conciliatory note today. The Republican-led House approved a loan guarantee for Ukraine. And Boehner says he supports the administration's limited sanctions as a welcome first step in response to Russia's military moves.

BOEHNER: We're continuing to work on a package of sanctions, try to give the president tools that he might employ that would strengthen his hand in dealing with this very difficult problem.

HORSLEY: Meanwhile, Obama denounced plans to hold a referendum in Crimea later this month on the peninsula's future. Obama says that's a decision for all of Ukraine, including the elected government in Kiev.

OBAMA: In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.

HORSLEY: This week the European Union did approve a $15 billion aid package for the fledgling government in Kiev. Obama's urging Congress to back that up with additional support through the International Monetary Fund.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.