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Europe, US seek Putin’s Achilles’ heel on Ukraine

July 28, 2014 - 12:05am

BRUSSELS — Months after Russia annexed Crimea and stepped up support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, Europe and the United States are still searching for a way to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to change course.

Targeted economic sanctions and threats of tougher ones have yet to alter what western officials say is Moscow’s growing backing for the rebels, including the shelling of Ukrainian military targets in southeast Ukraine from inside Russian territory and alleged plans to boost weapons supplies.

The U.S. on Sunday released satellite images that it says show that rockets have been fired from Russia into neighboring eastern Ukraine and that heavy artillery for separatists also has crossed the border. The images, which came from the U.S. Director of National Intelligence and could not be independently verified by The Associated Press, show blast marks where rockets were launched and craters where they landed.

The Pentagon said just days ago that the movement of Russian heavy-caliber artillery systems across its border into Ukraine is “imminent.” That escalation of military posturing is not the retreat the West was hoping sanctions would encourage.

Putin has been walking a tightrope in recent months, limiting his involvement in the Ukraine crisis just enough to avoid truly biting Western sanctions. But the downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet July 17, blamed by the U.S. and Ukraine on pro-Russian rebels — possibly with Russian help — might have changed the equation, galvanizing support among reluctant Europeans for additional penalties.

The European Union has said it will enact more sanctions on Russia by the end of the month and the United States, which had imposed its toughest sanctions just a day before the plane went down, is expected to follow suit.

Yet despite the promise of more pain, Russia has only boosted its role in the days since the plane went down, with the loss of nearly 300 passengers and crew, according to U.S. officials. That has left Washington and Brussels in a quandary over finding Putin’s Achilles’ heel and exploiting it.

Sanctions have not yet bitten Putin hard enough to change his behavior and neither have diplomatic moves to isolate him. Having been tossed out of the Group of Eight bloc of leading industrialized nations and seen his already limited contacts with NATO further reduced, Putin was still invited to join western leaders at ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day in France. And France said this week it will go ahead with the sale of two warships to Russia, the biggest ever sale by a NATO country of military equipment to Moscow.

At the same time, Russia has moved to align itself more closely with BRICS, representing the five major emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. In part because of that, U.S officials say there is currently no serious consideration of trying to bar Russia from other diplomatic events. Thus, the sanctions approach remains the focus.

The 28-nation EU has much greater leverage over Russia, but so far, to the frustration of U.S. officials, the EU has refrained from imposing broader sanctions because of divisions among its member states and fears of an economic backlash. But the death of some 200 EU citizens on the Malaysia Airlines plane, most of them Dutch, has made a tougher course seemingly inevitable.

“This is no longer about a war somewhere far away,” said Amanda Paul, an analyst with the Brussels-based European Policy Center think-tank. “If they don’t impose tougher sanctions, there will be a big question over the European Union’s credibility,” she said. “This is the only way Russia will draw back. When businesses and oligarchs feel the economic pain, they will start questioning Putin’s policies.”