Senators Urge Tougher Sanctions on Russia Now, Not After Ukraine Elections

The United States should impose more sanctions on Russia before it has a chance to interfere with presidential elections in Ukraine later this month, a bipartisan slate of senators told U.S. officials today.

With less than three weeks until the May 25 elections in Ukraine, international monitors have not yet seen any signs that Russia is planning any type of obstruction, but members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland that the United States should act pre-emptively.

"I see the Russians doing everything they can to disrupt those elections. And it seems to me there needs to be a consequence for that upfront so that that disruption doesn't continue to take place," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, during a hearing on Ukraine.

His Republican counterpart Bob Corker, R-Tenn., warned that Ukraine could go the way of Syria without further U.S. support.

"We talked big, but we didn't follow up. We didn't do the things that we said we would do," he said.

Last week, President Obama set as the bar for additional sanctions Russian hampering of Ukrainian democracy.

"If, in fact, we see the disruptions and the destabilization continuing so severely that it impedes elections on May 25, we will not have a choice but to move forward with additional, more severe sanctions," he said, during a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In fact, Nuland went slightly beyond that today, saying a planned May 11, Crimea-like referendum in the restive region of Donetsk, in which voters can choose to become part of Russia, could also be a "trigger" if Russia then moves in militarily to protect its new citizens.

But that didn't sit well with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who accused Nuland of being unclear about defining the criteria for additional sanctions.

"So, not only do they have to vote but then they have to move into - Russians have to move into eastern Crimea?" McCain asked Nuland.

"Again, senator, I think we will evaluate events as they move forward and we're very much … " Nuland said, getting cut off.

"Oh, you can't tell me. So the answer is that you can't tell me what specific action Russia would take in order to trigger sanctions, outside of the actual elections being disrupted themselves," McCain responded.

McCain then expressed his disappointment with her response.

"I had hoped better for - better as a witness when I strongly supported your nomination for your present position," he said.

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