Biden stiffens sanctions on Russia

Eli Stokols
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced Thursday that the U.S. will impose severe economic sanctions on Russia over what he described as an “unprovoked and unjustified attack” on Ukraine, but he stopped short of barring Moscow from a key global financial system.

“Putin is the aggressor. Putin chose this war,” Biden said. “And now he and his country will bear the consequences.”

Biden announced joint sanctions with European allies to sanction five more Russian banks holding around $1 trillion in assets. “Every asset they have in America will be frozen,” Biden said.

Biden also said the administration was sanctioning additional Russian “elites and their family members,” but not Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, although the president said that option was still “on the table.” The administration, however, opted not to sanction Russian energy giant Rosneft and instead focused this round of economic penalties on financial institutions, largely to avoid disrupting global energy markets, a concern the president articulated.

“As we respond, my administration is using the tools, every tool to protect American families and businesses from rising prices at the gas pump,” he said.

Biden confirmed his administration would not seek to bar Russia from using SWIFT, the global financial messaging network that connects more than 11,000 banks. Ukrainian officials, including the country’s president, have been vocal in urging Biden to block Russia from SWIFT, an action analysts say would have devastating consequences for Russia’s economy.

Administration officials did not take that step because they were concerned it might cause global energy prices to spike, according to an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations.

Getting several European nations to agree to such a move has also been difficult because their economies are so intertwined with Russia’s, the official said.

Still an option: Taking questions after delivering remarks, Biden conceded the impasse over SWIFT. “It is always an option, but right now that’s not the position that the rest of Europe wishes to take,” he said, asserting that the sanctions the administration was imposing would be just as consequential.

Declaring the West to be “more united than it’s ever been,” Biden said the response “will limit Russia’s ability to do business in dollars, euros, pounds and yen.” Biden also reiterated America’s commitment to Article 5 of NATO, an implicit warning to Putin that any invasion of NATO countries outside Ukraine will be met with military force.

“This is a complete rupture now in U.S.-Russia relations,” Biden said during a back-and-forth with reporters shouting questions following his remarks.

Following Biden’s remarks, the Pentagon announced the deployment of 7,000 additional U.S. service members to Europe, an effort to shore up defenses around NATO’s eastern flank countries along Russia’s western border.

Biden also pushed back on the suggestion that his approach on sanctions was meant to prevent the invasion itself. “No one expected the sanctions to prevent anything from happening,” he said. “This could take time, and we have to show resolve so he knows what’s coming and so the people of Russia know what he’s brought on them.” He added: “Let’s see in another month or so if (the sanctions) are working.”

Just the beginning? A senior Pentagon official said Thursday that Russia’s assault on Ukraine, the first major conflict on European soil in more than 70 years, was only just beginning.

“What we’re seeing are initial phases of a large-scale invasion,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The official said Russia appeared to be advancing in a three-pronged land assault on Ukraine from the east and from two regions in Belarus with a clear goal: to “decapitate” the Ukrainian government and replace it with people friendly to the Kremlin.

The White House in recent days has ordered sanctions that officials said would target Russian financial institutions and a few of the country’s elites and their family members, including the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service. The administration held back its stiffest measures and said it would escalate if and when Putin’s invasion ramped up.

“President Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering,” Biden said in a statement Wednesday night. “Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring, and the United States and its allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way. The world will hold Russia accountable.”

Martial law: In response to the attacks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared martial law in his embattled nation and encouraged his compatriots to take up arms.

Although Biden and NATO allies have spoken repeatedly about their support for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, they have also made it clear they will not assist Ukraine militarily beyond providing weapons assistance and financial aid.