Did Biden blink on Russia? Limited sanctions and no summit

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The U.S. media initially burst out in applause at the “sweeping” and “tough” sanctions the Biden administration imposed on Russia on April 15 under the title of “Imposing Costs for Harmful Foreign Activities by the Russian Government.” Targeted are activities that “undermine security in countries and regions important to United States national security; and violate well-established principles of international law, including respect for the territorial integrity of states” (meaning Ukraine).

The Biden justifications for the sanctions are the presumed Russian interference in the 2020 elections, Russia’s hacking and cyberwarfare, the disinformation activities of the Russian military, and other hostile acts not enumerated.

One additional sanction justification has been dropped, embarrassingly, at the last minute. The U.S. intelligence community can no longer assert with sufficient certainty that Russian forces offered rewards to Taliban fighters for killing U.S. soldiers. The sanctions document declares: “Given the sensitivity of this matter, which involves the safety and well-being of our forces, it is being handled through diplomatic, military and intelligence channels.” In other words, “Never mind” — although these supposed Russian rewards played a substantial role in the 2020 election campaign.

The Biden sanctions also prohibit U.S. financial markets from dealing with primary issues of Russian sovereign debt. This action will raise the cost of public finance to the Russian state.

Ten Russian diplomats are expelled, as is usually the case when such sanctions are imposed. An additional 32 Russian enterprises and individuals also fall under the new sanctions.

Notably missing, however, are sanctions to impede the completion of the Nord Stream 2 undersea gas pipeline from Northern Russia to Germany. These long threatened Nord Stream 2 sanctions are apparently still “under discussion.” I can imagine the Kremlin’s relief when it realized Nord Stream 2 had escaped sanctions and that pipe laying could continue.

Also missing are sanctions on Putin’s inner circle, for which the supporters of imprisoned Russian dissident Aleksei Navalny lobbied. They argued that Putin will take note only of sanctions on Kremlin insiders and not of the state and military officials singled out in the sanctions.

Biden’s invitation to Putin to meet one on one in a summit in a neutral location to iron out outstanding issues was advanced before the release of the sanctions. Russian pro-democracy observers characterize the invitation as a propaganda bonanza for Putin and a colossal Biden blunder. Putin’s media are characterizing Biden as a supine supplicant to Putin. When one such analyst was told of Biden’s invitation, he first thought it must be fake, especially after Biden recently called Putin a “killer.” He thought that no one could make such an amateur mistake.

Putin added insult to injury by conditioning his acceptance of the invitation on U.S. behavior — namely, sanctions. Predictably, shortly after the announcement of sanctions, the Russian foreign office declined the invitation, stating (insultingly) that logistics do not allow for such a meeting on such short notice.

The expulsion of Russian diplomats is a routine response. The sanctions on the 32 enterprises and individuals simply brings the U.S. up to the level of modest European Union sanctions. The order for U.S. financial markets not to trade in Russian sovereign debt will impose some damage in the form of lower exchange rates, but the Russian economy has long been a disaster, and these measures signal only a little more discomfort.

I suspect that Putin’s reaction to the Biden sanctions is that the new administration is “all talk, no action” and that it is prone to amateurish mistakes.

I doubt that these new sanctions will persuade Putin “to immediately cease his military buildup and inflammatory rhetoric” in Ukraine.

If anything, the weak and confused Biden sanctions will embolden Putin, who immediately closed the Kerch Strait to American naval vessels transiting from the Black Sea to the Azov Sea.

Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research. Follow him on Twitter @PaulR_Gregory.

Tags Aleksei Navalny Antony Blinken Biden foreign policy foreign election meddling International relations Joe Biden Nord Stream Presidency of Joe Biden Russia Russia sanctions Russian aggression Russia–United States relations SolarWinds hack Ukraine United States sanctions Vladimir Putin

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