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News Analysis: U.S. weighs further options with Russia in response to Ukraine crisis

by Matthew Rusling

WASHINGTON, March 21 (Xinhua) -- The United States is mulling its next steps toward Russia as Moscow seems unperturbed by what many have described as tepid U.S.-imposed sanctions over the crisis in Ukraine.

The United States sharply criticized Russia for its actions in Crimea earlier this month, and U.S. President Barack Obama will head to the Netherlands next week to press European leaders to get on board with harsher sanctions on Russia while attending the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit.

So far, the U.S. sanctions have consisted mainly of asset freezes and restrictions on travel to the West for a handful of Russians. Obama's critics said the move has given a green light to Russia to do whatever it pleases, as thus far no harsh punishment has come from Washington.

Indeed, the Kremlin took to Twitter earlier this week to mock Obama, with Deputy Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeting out: "Comrade @BarackObama, what should do those who have neither accounts nor property abroad? Or U didn't think about it?"

Others said there is very little the United States can do, believing that harsher sanctions are unlikely to force Russia to reverse course and pull out of Crimea, which last weekend voted overwhelmingly to separate from Ukraine and become part of Russia.

Those sentiments were echoed by former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who holds a PhD in Russian and Soviet history. He said recently U.S. sanctions are unlikely to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Experts said Washington is highly unlikely to take any sort of military action after more than a decade of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and with a public averse to involvement in crises that do not directly involve the United States.

Republican Strategist Ford O'Connell held the same opinion, but told Xinhua that if Washington did take that route, it would be a coordinated NATO effort.

Still, there are whispers on Capitol Hill about possible arming forces in Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia and Poland, but whether that becomes official policy depends on what Putin does next, O'Connell said.

David Clark, chairman of the Russia Foundation, told Xinhua that measures aimed at the Russian banking system and the stability of the ruble could have an immediate impact on Russia's economic interests.

The United States could also damage Russian interests by making more gas available for export as liquefied natural gas, reducing European prices and dependency on the Russian oil giant Gazprom, he said.

Russia currently supplies around a quarter of Europe's oil and natural gas, not to mention 40 percent of economic powerhouse Germany's gas, and Moscow has a deep trade relationship with eurozone nations, which some experts said could make Europe hesitant to impose harsh sanctions.

David Adesnik, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told Xinhua that Obama has made "poor decisions" that may have emboldened Putin.

Putin's actions in Ukraine may have in part been because of a perception of American weakness, he said.

Meanwhile, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian media on Wednesday that while Moscow does not want to use the Iran nuclear talks as leverage, Russia may have to.

Putin could theoretically share advanced nuclear and missile technology, effectively giving Iran what the United States wants to deny it, but such a move would be risky, as no nuclear power wants to admit a new member to the club, Adesnik said.

"More plausibly, Russia could subvert the sanctions against Iran," he added.

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