While Barack Obama has taken flak for the flaccid response from the West in the Ukraine crisis, the US has still managed to outpace the EU in action against Vladimir Putin and Russia. Putin’s trading partners in Europe are loathe to get into an economic war over Ukraine, and have shown it. Obama will pitch a tougher set of sanctions today to the EU, and at least one key leader seems ready to follow through:

President Obama said Friday that he’ll be talking to key European leaders as he travels in South Korea to make sure the Europeans share his assessment thatRussia has not lived up to promises made last week to de-escalate tension in Ukraine.

Mr. Obama said it’s important to lay the groundwork for stronger sanctions, so that “if and when we see even greater escalation, perhaps even a military incursion by Russia into Ukraine, that we’re prepared for the sort of sectoral sanctions that would have even larger consequences.”

The president emphasized that European leaders have been “unequivocal in condemning Russia,” but that coordination on stronger sanctions is not a simple or speedy process.

“They have a whole process that they’ve got to go through to deal with any actions that have significant impact on their own economies,” he said, “and so there’s some variation inside of Europe, that is as much of an issue as it is any differences between our assessments and theirs.”

The timing may finally be right. Germany’s Angela Merkel revealed that she scolded Putin over Russia’s actions in a phone call earlier today, rejecting their claims of cooperation, and warning that Putin has forced the EU to react:

“I spoke to the Russian president this morning and made clear again that on the one hand Ukraine has taken a whole series of steps to implement the Geneva accord but on the other side I see no Russian backing for the accord which would of course have an effect on the separatists in Ukraine,” she said.

“Russia has the power, or could have the power, to bring the separatists on to a peaceful path of discussions about the constitution and preparations for elections, but such signals are unfortunately lacking.”

Merkel added: “We will therefore have to react. This will be a joint European action and an action by the G7…because of the lack of progress we will have to contemplate further sanctions… within the second stage of sanctions.”

Yesterday, Putin acknowledged that sanctions had damaged the Russian economy, but that the damage had been rather limited:

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that sanctions were hurting the Russian economy but that the damage was not critical.

“Overall they are causing (damage), because (credit) ratings are being reviewed, loans could become more expensive and so forth. But this is of no critical character,” Putin said of sanctions imposed over Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The bad news for Putin is that Russia’s likely to start drowning in sanctions if they don’t get serious about de-escalating the Ukraine crisis. Obama said at the presser today that Putin’s not stupid and understands the kind of impact that new sanctions will have — but that he’d certainly rescue Putin if he was literally drowning:

That came in response to Putin’s backhanded compliment towards Obama last week, when Putin was asked whether the US President would save him. Putin was “sure” that Obama would do so. Maybe — just maybe — we should test that out in the figurative sense with some real economic consequences for Putin’s imperialism.