Lawmakers press Biden for tougher Russia sanctions over Ukraine invasion

Lawmakers in both parties wasted no time on Thursday pressing President Biden to impose tougher sanctions on Russia, saying the economic penalties levied to date don’t go far enough to punish President Vladimir Putin for his imperial designs on Ukraine. 

Even Democratic allies urged Biden to go beyond the latest set of sanctions he unveiled earlier in the day, which were aimed at curbing Russia’s access to foreign capital, hobbling the financial freedoms of Moscow’s wealthy elite and preventing Putin’s military from obtaining the latest high-tech weapons systems.

The full-scale military incursion into Ukraine, they argued, merits the toughest possible penalties in the form of cutting off Russia’s access to an international messaging system for banks, seizing Russian oligarchs’ assets like yachts and villas, and sanctioning Putin personally.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said that while the sanctions Biden unveiled earlier Thursday “are all critical steps,” there remains more that Washington policymakers “can and should do” as they “seek to impose maximum costs on Putin.”

“Congress and the Biden administration must not shy away from any options,” Menendez said.

Menendez specifically suggested sanctioning the Russian Central Bank, removing Russian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) payment system, targeting key Russian industries and “taking all steps to deprive Putin and his inner circle of their assets.”

He was hardly alone. 

“They must feel acute pain for their crimes and the horrors they are causing,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell, a fellow New Jersey Democrat.

“Seize their estates. Impound their yachts. Auction their possessions. Topple their stock market. Embargo their fuel. Kick their kids out of our colleges,” Pascrell continued. “Vladimir Putin may be one of the richest men on earth with billions he has looted from his people: grab every penny of it that can be grabbed.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), speaking at an event in Kentucky after a briefing with Biden and other top congressional leaders, said he’s urged the president to do more with sanctions and to provide Ukraine with aid to fight the invading Russian military. 

“My advice to the president, both publicly and privately, is ratchet the sanctions all the way up as far as you can,” McConnell said.

Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.), the senior Republican on the Banking Committee, joined the growing chorus, saying Biden’s initial moves, while welcome, will likely prove “inadequate to deter Putin from further aggression.”

Toomey is calling for much tougher restrictions on Russia’s oil and gas industry — the lion’s share of its export economy — as well as “Iran-style secondary sanctions on Russian banks that force the world to choose between doing business with Russia or the United States.” 

Other lawmakers are specifically calling for sanctioning the so-called “Navalny 35,” a group of elite Russians identified by the opposition leader Alexei Navalny as heavily involved in human rights abuses and corruption.

“Endemic corruption and theft from the Russian people fuels Putin’s repression and military aggression; it is also his greatest political vulnerability,” Reps. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) and John Curtis (R-Utah), who co-chair an anti-corruption caucus, said in a joint statement. 

It’s not just members of Congress who are calling for cutting off Russia’s access to the international messaging system for banks. Ukrainian government officials pleaded for the sanctions as the Russian military attacked their homeland early Thursday.

“I will not be diplomatic on this. Everyone who now doubts whether Russia should be banned from SWIFT has to understand that the blood of innocent Ukrainian men, women and children will be on their hands too,” Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, tweeted in advance of Biden’s remarks. “BAN RUSSIA FROM SWIFT.”

Biden defended the decision to hold off on barring Moscow from the SWIFT payment system despite the pressure. He said the banking restrictions he did install might prove to be even more effective than the SWIFT sanctions. On top of that, he added, unnamed leaders in Europe are currently opposed.

The U.S. and other European allies are trying to maintain a united front against Russia — so they’re limited to what everyone can agree on, Biden explained.

“It’s always an option,” Biden said, “but right now that is not the position the rest of Europe wishes to take.” 

In the meantime, the latest sanctions cut off Russian financial institutions from processing payments through the U.S. financial system. The sanctions also target 10 Russian elites and restrict Russia’s ability to import U.S. technology like semiconductors, lasers and sensors. 

It’s the second slate of sanctions that the Biden administration has issued in recent days. Biden announced more limited sanctions earlier this week targeting state-owned financial institutions after Putin declared recognition of two pro-Russia regions in eastern Ukraine and forecast an imminent invasion. That assault launched in earnest early Thursday morning with a series of missile strikes, which have already led to the deaths of dozens of Ukrainian civilians and military personnel, according to officials in Kyiv. 

Biden maintained that the latest round of sanctions will still be painful for the Russian economy and for Putin himself.

“He’s going to begin to see the effect of the sanctions,” Biden said of Putin on Thursday. “It will so weaken his country that he’ll have to make a very, very difficult choice as to whether to continue to move toward being a second-rate power or, in fact, respond.”

But those comments have done little to appease the Russia hawks in both parties, who were stunned by Putin’s brazen advance on a sovereign country in peacetime, and are now warning that only the steepest sanctions will prevent the Russian president from expanding his imperial ambitions beyond Ukraine. 

“If 20th Century history has taught us anything,” said Pascrell, “it is that if you continually sate a wolf, he will not stop but eventually devour you.”

Tags Bill Pascrell Bob Menendez Joe Biden Mitch McConnell Pat Toomey Tom Malinowski Vladimir Putin
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