What Biden Could Do Next to Pressure Putin on Ukraine
As Joe Biden sat down in the West Wing’s Cabinet Room on Thursday with his top officials to discuss the U.S. response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a boom microphone rattled the chandelier overhead.
Biden looked up at the swinging crystal light fixture and joked that if the heavy ornament fell, it wouldn’t fall on their heads. “Well, at least it’s in the middle,” Biden said with a grin, patting the oval mahogany table around which his cabinet was gathered. He continued with a positive assessment of the news in Russia: the sanctions, first imposed seven days before, have “had a profound impact already,” Biden said. “The goal was to maximize the impact on Putin and Russia, and to minimize the harm on us and our allies and friends around the world.”
Biden could not keep his smile on for too long. That strategic effort has left him with few additional steps to take, now that an enormous raft of harsh sanctions has cut off Russia from much of its capital reserves—valued at $630 billion in late January— crippled its aviation and manufacturing supply chains, and frozen assets of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s elite inner circle.
These will bite Russia. Biden, however, has done almost everything he could to impose sanctions on Russia a week before the Russian tanks began rolling towards Kyiv. This was without causing major disruptions in American and European economic growth. Now Biden’s effort is moving to a new phase. Rather than imposing dramatic new pressure points, Biden and allies are left largely enforcing those they’ve already imposed and ratcheting up existing restrictions with a hope the strain gets Putin to change his calculus in Ukraine. However without getting directly involved in militarily protecting Ukraine from invasion—which he has vowed he won’t do—Biden is running out of ways to change Putin’s mind.
“The question is less about our next move and more and more about Putin’s,” says a senior Administration official. “It’s his next move.”
There are a few measures Biden’s Administration is considering next. Hoping to hit Putin’s economic interests even harder, U.S. officials can deepen the existing sanctions and broaden sanctions to include other technologies and industries, the official says. Officials from the United States are looking into ways that they can convince others countries to boost oil production and sell in preparation for Russian oil and gas sales decreasing over time. This is because Russian refineries become more difficult to run and other countries start looking elsewhere to fuel their engines. According to the U.S. official, liquid natural gas is being transported from other countries around the globe to Europe by the U.S.
It is intended to make the market more competitive and to increase energy production, in an effort to compensate for a decline in Russian supply. This will not result in higher prices for Americans. Russian oil and natural gas account for about 10% of U.S. energy supplies. Biden on Tuesday released 30,000,000 barrels of oil from U.S. Strategic Reserves to curb a spike in gas prices. But he was reluctant to approve leases to oil and gas drilling federally on federal lands. These approvals would have to be approved for years, and will draw criticism from climate change activists. According to the official, this is the reason why the U.S. allowed Russia to keep receiving payments for its energy supplies. “We do have an overwhelming interest to downgrade Russia’s status as a leading energy supplier over time,” the official says.
Friday’s Commerce Department announcement stated that Russian access had been further limited to both oil and natural gas extraction equipment as well products for refining. It also restricted American software technology and hardware, which could be used by Russia’s military.
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In addition to coming up with ways to squeeze Putin’s income, the U.S. and allies are also trying to bring financial pain to Putin’s inner circle. An international task force of investigators and prosecutors from the Justice Department, along with key European allies, is seizing the yachts and mansions of billionaires who have been in close proximity to Putin throughout the years. The U.S. has added many names to its Russian elites list. Biden also banned the travel of more than 50 Russian wealthy people, as well their families and friends, to the U.S. “These individuals, part of President Putin’s inner circle, have enriched themselves at the expense of the Russian people, and their support has facilitated Putin’s war of choice against Ukraine,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday.
All of the moves have one goal: to get one man to think differently. There are no signs that economic pain is going to change his mind anytime soon. “We’re socking it to him, but I don’t think there’s a diplomatic offramp in the short to medium term because it’ll look like a loss for Putin,” says Michael Allen, who was a senior official on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council. “Putin’s not the kind of guy who can turn around and just go back. He’s gonna do what you’ve seen the last few days which is to turn these cities into Grozny or Aleppo. We don’t have a lot of leverage to deter him from doing that.”
To avoid direct confrontation with Russia, the Biden Administration has decided to not send U.S. forces directly into Ukraine. Instead, it will work with NATO allies and North Atlantic Treaty Organization members to provide weapons and ammunition for Ukrainian defenses. But as Russia’s military incursion escalates, and if the Russian military continue to use banned gruesome weapons like vacuum bombs, pressure is going to mount on the U.S. and NATO to take a more direct military role, including enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Republicans in Congress called on the U.S. military to give more tactical information to Ukraine about Russian positions and moves. U.S. officials say that the U.S. is providing intelligence information to Ukraine, but the U.S. doesn’t have drones or other air assets over the battlefield and that limits how much direct combat information it can collect.
Options remain to escalate some pressure on Putin short of direct military engagements, says Cari Stinebower, who worked in the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations. In addition to doing more to shut down Russia’s oil and gas sales, the U.S. and allies could further deny Russian banks access to banking transactions, and could work with allies to impose secondary sanctions on countries trading with Russia, like China, India, and Pakistan. European countries might also consider expanding sanctions in the insurance space, which would eliminate insurance protection for Russian businesses.
Still, while such sanctions will turn Russia into a pariah state, it’s unclear if it will change Putin’s mind about attacking Ukraine, says Stinebower. “Despite the coalition impact and the devastation to the Russian economy,” Stinebower says, “it may not be enough.”