White House officials have called the latest package of sanctions against Russia “a severe action,” with President Joe Biden saying the economic restrictions will "cut off Russia’s government from Western financing” — powerful claims that some critics and even some Biden allies say are overblown and will do little to stop President Vladimir Putin on his military push toward Ukraine.
The package of U.S. sanctions announced Tuesday and Wednesday include several elements: action to block Russia’s revenue-raising Nord Stream 2 pipeline plus sanctions on two large banks, Russia’s sovereign debt, and a handful of elites with ties to Putin.
Any problem solved?
China, which is Russia’s largest trading partner, came out hard against the very concept of sanctions Wednesday. China, as a rule, follows a policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states.
“Our position is that sanctions are never fundamentally effective means to solve problems,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying. “We consistently oppose all illegal unilateral sanctions.”
She cited U.S. Treasury data showing the U.S. has increased its use of sanctions tenfold in the last two decades, and asked, rhetorically: “Have the U.S. sanctions solved any problem? Is the world a better place because of those sanctions? Will the Ukraine issue resolve itself thanks to the U.S. sanctions on Russia? Will European security be better guaranteed thanks to the U.S. sanctions on Russia? … I would also like to point out that the illegal unilateral sanctions by some countries including the U.S. have caused severe difficulties to relevant countries’ economy and livelihood.”
But analyst Chris Miller of the American Enterprise Institute predicted that these sanctions would not do much to Putin’s bottom line.
"The sanctions announced [Tuesday] — notably the sovereign debt sanctions — will have a minor, negative macroeconomic impact on Russia,” he told VOA.
Anti-corruption campaigners have lobbied the administration to target several dozen members of Putin’s inner circle.
“Existing sanctions don’t reach enough of the right people,” Vladimir Ashurkov, director of the Moscow-based Anti-Corruption Foundation, said in a January letter to Biden. “The West must sanction the decision-makers who have made it national policy to rig elections, steal from the budget, and poison. It must also sanction the people who hold their money. Anything less will fail to make the regime change its behavior.”
He was referring to allegations that Putin ordered security officials to poison now-jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
The sanctions announced Tuesday target three men from Ashurkov’s list of 35: top intelligence official Aleksandr Bortnikov, whom Ashurkov described as the man “responsible inter alia for the attempted poisoning of Alexei Navalny”; Bortnikov’s son Denis, who is the deputy president and chairman of the Russian state-owned VTB Bank; and Sergei Kiriyenko, a top official in Putin’s office. Ashurkov accuses Denis Bortnikov of “acting as a wallet for his father’s ill-gotten gains.”
The administration also leveled sanctions at Petr Fradkov, chairman of Promsvyazbank, one of the two banks that the administration has sanctioned.
Jennifer Erickson, an associate professor of political science and international studies at Boston College, said the administration’s decision to impose limited measures at this time could leave it room to seek a diplomatic solution.
“There's a lot more that the United States could do if they wanted to take really firm, strong action,” she told VOA. “So it's leaving room to maneuver. And I think there's a dilemma there for the U.S. You know, do you go really strong now, and hope to make the cost really high to stop further action from Russia? Or do you wait and leave room to sort of escalate your sanctions as Russia might escalate its actions, give it room to back down?”
Administration officials indicated that they were trying to leave space for diplomacy.
“No one should think that it’s our goal to max out on sanctions,” said Daleep Singh, deputy White House national security adviser for international economics. “Sanctions are not an end to themselves. They serve a higher purpose. And that purpose is to deter and prevent.”
But in Washington, where Biden faces political pressure, that moderation has drawn out his critics.
Republican Senator Ben Sasse described the package as “too little, too late,” arguing that the sanctions should have been issued before Putin ordered troops into the Ukrainian border regions of Luhansk and Donetsk regions — a move that Biden characterized as “the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
"We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that today’s incremental sanctions will deter Putin from trying to install a puppet government in Kyiv,” Sasse said.
But perhaps the biggest, loudest criticism came from the nation in Putin’s crosshairs.
"First decisive steps were taken yesterday, and we are grateful for them," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted. "Now the pressure needs to step up to stop Putin. Hit his economy and cronies. Hit more. Hit hard. Hit now."