Calling the deadly attack on a Malaysia Airlines flight an "outrage of unspeakable proportions," President Barack Obama said Friday that the United States will dial up the pressure on Russia if it continues to support armed groups in eastern Ukraine. But when it comes to the energy sector -- a key chunk of Russia's economy and the major focus of the current American sanctions -- that won't be a quick or easy job to do so.
The tools available to the United States, such as export bans on key energy-sector technology, will be of limited use if the European Union continues to shy away from putting tougher measures in place against Russia. Fresh sanctions looked unlikely Friday, July 18, despite the airliner disaster; EU officials said they hope to finalize the latest list of sanctioned individuals and firms by the end of the month, but had not yet decided whether to take any further steps in the wake of the latest escalation.
Even if Europe gets on board, more-ambitious sanctions, including a full Iran-style embargo of Russia's energy exports, seem far-fetched, as Obama himself said in May. Russia is the world's third-largest oil producer and a major exporter of natural gas. Russia, in other words, may be too big to nail.
In any event, Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has been working to reduce his reliance on the West for energy revenues and is finding fresh allies in Asia. Moscow just inked a landmark natural gas deal with China; Beijing will invest more than $20 billion to help develop energy infrastructure in Russia's Far East, and it has exchanged billions of dollars in bank loans for long-term supplies of crude oil.