Obama: Russia sanctions "are working as intended"

U.S. and European sanctions on Russia "are working as intended," President Obama said Wednesday, because there has incredible strain on the country's economy.

The severe sanctions on key sectors of the Russian economy were announced last week in an attempt to pressure Russia to convince separatists in Ukraine to stop destabilizing the eastern part of the country. But Russia continues to amass troops on its border with Ukraine, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Wednesday that there is a growing threat of an invasion.

Still, Mr. Obama concluded the U.S. did not know if the sanctions regime had actually failed. The current course of action, "has presented the choice to [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin as to whether he is going to try to resolve the issues in eastern Ukraine through diplomacy and peaceful ...or alternatively continue on the course that he has been in which case he's going to be hurting his economy."

"In that sense we are doing exactly what we should be doing and we are very pleased that our European allies and partners joined us in that process," he said.

He continued to resist the idea that small arms would be beneficial to the Ukrainian military, which is much smaller than Russia's. If there is a Russian invasion, "that's obviously a different set of questions," he said.

The president also announced Wednesday, at the close of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, that the United States is helping to develop "rapid response" peacekeeping forces to support international and African missions. Improving African security has been a partial focus on the summit, and the U.S. has another plan to spend $65 million to improve security institutions in Kenya, Niger, Mali, Nigeria, Ghana and Tunisia.

The president has previously supported African-led military efforts to deal with the rising threat of Islamic militias on the continent. It will partner with Ghana, Senegal, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda to develop the peacekeeping forces.

On the ongoing conflict in Gaza, Mr. Obama said the U.S.'s short-term goal was to ensure that the temporary cease-fire between Israel and Hamas can be made more permanent.

Indirect Israeli-Palestinian negotiations began in Cairo Wednesday amid a cease-fire as the two sides attempt to hammer out a more permanent peace deal. CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata reported from Tel Aviv that the cease-fire felt more like a standoff with the prospect of a return to war not far away. Israeli tanks are still positioned on the Gaza border.

In the long term, the president said, "there has to be a recognition that Gaza cannot sustain itself permanently closed off from the world and incapable of providing some opportunity, jobs, economic growth for the population that lives there."

"I have no sympathy for Hamas. I have great sympathy for ordinary people who are struggling within Gaza," Mr. Obama continued. He said the U.S. will work to find a long-term solution in which Gaza does not become a launching pad for attacks against Israel once again, but there is also an opening of Gaza.

He also said that any longer-term peace talks are going to need to involve the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.

"They've shown themselves to be responsible, they have recognized Israel, they are prepared to move forward to arrive at a two-state solution," he said.

The president was also asked about potential executive action on the immigration system, where he is reportedly considering ways to remove the threat of deportation for millions of immigrants living illegally in the U.S., and blocking a method some companies use to reduce their tax bill in the U.S. by shifting ownership overseas.

"My preference in all these instances is to work with Congress because not only can Congress do more but it's going to be longer lasting," the president said. Still he defended the steps he has taken to act unilaterally on several issues where his administration has deemed it legal, saying, "I promise you the American people don't want me just standing around twiddling my thumbs and waiting for Congress to get something done."

He did not commit to action on either front, but said that on immigration, he was going to have to "make choices in terms of how we allocate personnel and resources."

Amid the ongoing Ebola crisis, which cast a shadow over the gathering of nearly 50 African heads of state in Washington, D.C., the president was asked about the prospect of speeding up the development of an experimental vaccine that has been shown to be effective in primates. An experimental drug serum was used to treat two American aid workers who contracted the virus.

But Mr. Obama said it was "premature" to commit to fast-tracking a vaccine, saying "we've got to let the science guide us." In the meantime, the U.S. is focused on the public health aspect of comabatting the virus.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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