Biden, allies launch sanctions against Russia
President Biden’s strategy to confront Russian aggression against Ukraine is being put to the test.
Biden on Tuesday put into motion coordinated sanctions that were developed over months of intensive diplomacy among allies and aimed at imposing punishing consequences on Moscow.
The president also announced that he would send additional U.S. troops to Germany, Poland and Romania, where at least 6,000 American forces have been deployed in recent weeks to bolster the eastern flank members of NATO.
The administration has said its allies and partners are resolved to work in lockstep even amid concerns that disparate countries would pull punches on a sanctions package over the hit it could impose on their own economies, including in the U.S., based on differing interests, ties and reliance on Russian energy and investment.
Biden called the moves the first set of significant measures taken in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision a day earlier to recognize as independent, and aid militarily, breakaway regions in southeastern Ukraine.
“This is the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Biden said in remarks from the East Room of the White House. “I’m going to begin to impose sanctions … and if Russia goes further with this invasion, we stand prepared to go further.”
The president announced full-blocking sanctions on a Russian development corporation, VEB bank, and Russian state lender Promsvyazbank, as well as targeting Russian sovereign debt to cut Moscow off from Western financing. The Biden administration also announced sanctions on five prominent Russians with links to the Kremlin and their family members.
This followed an initial limited sanctions order Monday night that prohibits investment and trade in the breakaway territories, Donetsk and Luhansk — the separatist-held areas that Putin, in a move setting up justification for an invasion, recognized as independent.
While administration officials insisted the sanctions were “severe,” some critics described them as insufficient. The measures did not include penalties such as kicking Russia out of the SWIFT international banking system, though Biden administration officials said that such a move was not off the table.
“Today’s sanctions are too little, too late,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in a statement immediately following Biden’s announcement.
A senior Biden administration official warned that the U.S. is prepared to sanction other large Russian financial institutions, such as VTB Bank, if Moscow broadens its military invasion of Ukraine.
“This is the beginning of an invasion and this is the beginning of our response,” the official told reporters. “If Putin escalates further, we will escalate further.”
The White House has also threatened export controls that would prevent Russia from obtaining key U.S. technologies, and the official signaled those would be part of a later response to further Russian military aggression toward Ukraine.
Edward Fishman, adjunct fellow with the Center for a New American Security, tweeted that sanctions on VEB bank mark the first time the U.S. has used its toughest sanctions tool on a major state-owned Russian bank and signal that such action could be taken against more state-owned banks, including larger ones.
“If Putin intensifies aggression, I expect today’s action is just the tip of the iceberg,” he tweeted.
The actions by the U.S. are buoyed by sanctions measures and other commitments announced by a host of allies and partners, including Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Japan and Canada.
“At every step, we’ve shown the United States and our allies and partners are working in unison which he hasn’t been counting on — Mr. Putin,” the president said.
Germany, in particular, took the step of suspending certification for a Russia-to-Germany natural gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, keeping the completed pipeline offline.
Biden administration officials said the announcement followed consultations between the U.S. and Germany overnight Monday.
But Republicans critical of Biden’s approach to Nord Stream 2 and Democrats hawkish on Russia called for the president and Germany to go further by terminating the pipeline completely.
Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that Germany should permanently suspend certifying the pipeline.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the panel’s chairman, said in an interview with CNN that Biden should remove a waiver he issued in May that lifted sanctions on German entities involved in the pipeline’s operations, saying the U.S. should make sure that Nord Stream 2 “is officially dead.”
Menendez further called for Biden to impose the “overwhelming amount of [sanctions] now” but reserve cutting Russia off from the SWIFT financial system as a potential nuclear option.
“When is it that we’re going to be clear to Putin that there are severe consequences for what he’s doing? When he takes another bite after this bite?” he asked.
Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters in his home state that he was in consultation with Democrats about creating an interagency task force to go after Russian oligarchs.
“I want to see cops go in and take apartments, fine art, seize yachts from a bunch of thugs and crooks,” Graham said. “I want to put money on the table to have more weapons for Ukraine to fight. I want more protection when it comes to cyber, and I want to go at this big, and I want to go at it hard.”
In the United Kingdom, an initial sanctions package blacklisted three Russian billionaires who were already under U.S. sanctions: Gennady Timchenko, Boris Rotenberg and Igor Rotenberg, his nephew.
The U.K. also imposed sanctions on five Russian banks: Rossiya Bank, IS Bank, GenBank, Promsvyazbank and the Black Sea Bank.
“We will curtail the ability of the Russian state and Russian companies to raise funds in our markets, prohibit a range of high tech exports, and further isolate Russian banks from the global economy,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said in a statement. “These will be surgically targeted sanctions that will hit Russia hard.”
The European Union, for its part, announced a sanctions package that targeted all 351 members of the Russian legislature who voted to recognize Donetsk and Luhansk and blacklisted at least 27 Russian officials and institutions from the defense and banking world. They also imposed limits on Moscow’s access to EU capital and financial markets.
Japan committed to coordinating a “tough response,” including sanctions with other members of the Group of 7 (G-7). Russia was kicked out of the group, then the G-8, in 2014, for its invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Canada, a member of the G-7, also vowed to impose economic sanctions.
The sanctions on Russia by international governments were coupled with commitments to assist Ukraine’s economy, with the conflict wreaking havoc on businesses and local industry. Ukraine’s hryvnia, its currency, dropped to a seven-year low, Reuters reported.
Biden, in a meeting with Ukraine’s foreign minister in Washington on Tuesday, said the U.S. is committed to providing security assistance and macroeconomic support to Ukraine, according to a readout from the White House.
The U.S., along with NATO, have bolstered their military presence around Ukraine against Putin’s massing of close to 190,000 troops, which are squeezing the nation from multiple sides, from Belarus in the north, Russian troops near and inside the Donbas, forces in Russian-occupied Crimea and Russian war ships in the Black Sea.
“We are on the precipice of a dark and dangerous era,” Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said at a special Tuesday meeting in Vienna of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.