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U.S. Sanctions Official: Russia 'Will Probe With A Bayonet'

Fried: "A failure to respond might have been interpreted as a green light for still more aggression."
Fried: "A failure to respond might have been interpreted as a green light for still more aggression."

WASHINGTON -- A top U.S. diplomat overseeing sanctions policy says punitive economic measures are curtailing Russian "aggression" and testing Western resolve amid Ukraine's war with Russian-backed separatists.

"I think that in true Leninist fashion, the Russian government will probe with a bayonet, so to speak, until it encounters resistance," Daniel Fried, the U.S. State Department's coordinator for sanctions policy, told RFE/RL in a July 30 interview.

"When they do, if they do, as they have in this case, they will pull back and reassess their tactics," he added.

Russian officials, unsurprisingly, have repeatedly denounced Western sanctions targeting Moscow. But Kremlin critics have criticized them as well, saying the measures help state propaganda portray Russia as besieged by foreign enemies, and deepen anti-Western sentiment among Russians struggling in the country's foundering economy.

Fried said, however, that not responding to Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea territory in March 2014 and its role in the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine was not an option.

He suggested that Western sanctions have played a role in prompting Moscow to rein in its potential territorial ambitions related to Novorossia, a tsarist-era label -- embraced last year by Russian President Vladimir Putin -- for a stretch of land reaching through southern Ukraine down to Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region.

"It seems to me a failure to respond might have been interpreted as a green light for still more aggression," he said. "Do you remember the talk of Novorossia, and the extravagant territorial claims that some Russian nationalists were making, probably in a form of a trial balloon?"

Kyiv and Western governments say Russia continues to fuel the conflict in eastern Ukraine by providing weapons, training, and manpower to separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow denies the accusation despite mounting evidence of such support. Russian officials have conceded that Russian soldiers have fought alongside the rebels but that they are doing so as volunteers.

Putin Cronies

Russia, meanwhile, accuses Washington and Brussels of backing a "coup" against Ukraine's former president, Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovych, and replacing him with pro-Western leaders in order to draw Kyiv away from Moscow's influence.

The United States and the EU have sanctioned numerous Russian companies, officials, and businessmen close to Russian President Vladimir Putin in response to the Kremlin's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea territory in March 2014 and the outbreak of violence in eastern Ukraine the following month.

Fried spoke to RFE/RL on the same day that the U.S. Treasury Department announced additional Ukraine-related sanctions targeting more than two dozen individuals and entities.

The U.S. Treasury Department framed the fresh designations not as an escalation of sanctions, but rather an effort to counter attempts at circumventing existing sanctions, and aligning "U.S. measures with those of our international partners."

Fried said that the announcement makes it clear that "we are going after sanctions-evaders."

Among those added to the sanctions list are eight individuals and companies accused by the Treasury Department of helping a longtime associate of Putin's, billionaire businessman Gennady Timchenko, skirt U.S. sanctions.

Fried reiterated that Washington is "prepared to raise the costs on Russia" with other sanctions "should Russia engage in new additional aggression against Ukraine, especially if Russia or the Russian-controlled separatists launch new attacks across the line of conflict."

"We've made no decisions at all. But...we would be frankly derelict in our duty if we weren't preparing for eventualities, even those we hope never come to pass," he said.

Fried said that while he believes sanctions against Russia have been effective, "we also have to be realistic."

"They take time, they take constant effort to maintain them, and they require policy patience and determination," he said.

He added that he wishes "it weren't necessary to have a robust sanctions program."

"It would be better for everyone if we had a different agenda with Russia now," Fried said. "But our agenda with Russia is a function of their actions, unfortunately, including their aggression in Ukraine. And the day will come, I believe, when we have a better relationship with Russia. But that day, sadly, is not today."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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