Biden: Here is our united -- and incremental -- response to "pariah" Putin's aggression

Biden: Here is our united -- and incremental -- response to "pariah" Putin's aggression

How does one impose deterring sanctions on a major oligarchical petro-state that seems bent on military conquest? Two of the most obvious options would be to exclude their citizens from the global banking system and to target their ability to sell oil and gas on the world market.


That’s not what the West will do, though.

So if we’re not going to target sanctions on Russian banking or Russian energy production, then what are we going to sanction? Joe Biden laid it out in a twice-delayed address on the Western response to Putin. The sanctions will “limit” Putin’s abilities to trade with G-7 currencies, but still apparently did so by just adding four more Russian banks to the pre-existing sanctions list. Biden also added more people to the personal sanctions list that also was in place before the invasion:


The export controls will “cut off more than half” of Russia’s “high tech exports.” Why not cut them all off? Why not cut off oil and gas sales? Instead, Biden made a point of claiming that the sanctions are designed to allow for those sales, a concession that Putin must appreciate today, since that’s how he’s funding the Ukraine invasion.

It’s at least a response, but it’s incremental at best. “We’re preparing to do more,” Biden declared at one point, but the question has to be why more wasn’t done before the invasion. A full-scale invasion should prompt a full-scale economic response, even if we aren’t going to commit to a military response.

To be fair, however, Biden might not have had much choice except incrementalism. Boris Johnson called for Russia to get locked out of the SWIFT banking system, but Germany has already tossed cold water on that plan, reports the Financial Times. And Biden also hinted that other EU nations had also balked at that move:


Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, is pushing “very hard” to remove Russia. However, Olaf Scholz, German chancellor, warned on Thursday that his country would not support such a dramatic move and neither would the EU, according to officials close to sanctions negotiations. A German official declined to comment, saying only that “all options are still on the table”.

Johnson has faced criticism in the UK for deploying what critics described as “peashooter” sanctions in response to the first stage of Russian aggression in Ukraine; he is now trying to push western colleagues to deploy very tough reprisals.

“The PM is very keen on this — he’s pushing it very hard,” said one British official, referring to his efforts to eject Russia from Swift. Johnson also raised the idea at a meeting with City of London executives on Wednesday.

But Downing Street conceded that any move regarding Swift could only be done with international agreement, a position shared by the Biden administration. “We have to do it together,” the British official said.

Such a sanction would definitely do serious damage to Putin’s economic standing with Russian oligarchs, as Business Insider explains. It would also crash the economy of everyday Russians, which is why other G-7 nations are skittish:

Among the harshest economic and financial options on the table is a cutoff to Swift, or the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. The Belgian communications system was launched in 1973 to serve as a neutral platform for banks to chat about financial transfers, transactions, and trades. …

Cutting off Russia from Swift would effectively sever the country from the global financial system. Sanctions have so far targeted Russian financial institutions and elites, with countries aiming to divert any economic harm from Russia’s general populace. Banning the entire country from Swift would halt Russia’s ability to conduct international trade, receive foreign currency, or continue global business dealings.

It’s unclear just how hard that would hit the Russian economy, but the estimates available are bleak. Russia forecasted in 2014 that losing access to Swift would prompt a 5% drop in the country’s gross domestic product, according to the Carnegie Moscow Center. Analysts at Capital Economics backed that projection on Tuesday, saying harsher sanctions such as Swift removal would power a 5% drop in output.

There also aren’t any true alternatives to Swift, meaning Russia couldn’t simply pivot to another global communications system. Russia began developing its own domestic network for financial communications in 2014 amid fresh sanction risk from the US. Yet the service only hosts roughly 400 institutions, making it far less effective than Swift.


In other words, this set of sanctions would have real teeth, and would bite immediately. It would dry up the funding Putin gets through his oil and gas sales, as well as make it impossible (or at least very difficult) to conduct other import/export business. That’s why Volodymyr Zelensky openly campaigned for the West to impose those sanctions this morning, but Western countries are very concerned about a “severe spillover” effect that could destabilize Russia — and lead to something worse than Putin.

So if the spillover onto Russian citizens is the problem with SWIFT sanctions, how about targeting Russia’s energy industry directly? Politico reports that Joe Biden doesn’t want to do that either:

The U.S. and its allies are expected to impose major new sanctions on Russia — punishing President Vladimir Putin for ordering a full-scale invasion of Ukraine but stopping short of targeting some critical sectors of his nation’s economy.

Two people familiar with the plans, including a senior administration official, said Russian energy giant Rosneft is not expected to be a target of the new sanctions package. The administration is concerned about global energy markets, one of the sources said. Another person familiar said the focus of the sanctions will be on financial institutions.

Another senior administration official said “no option is off the table,” but “starting out with energy could actually benefit Putin and pad his pockets. Given high oil and gas prices, cutting off Russian oil and gas will drive prices up to Putin’s benefit. And as we have said repeatedly on the record, on background [and] off the record, our sanctions are designed to harm Russia’s economy, not ours.”

Asked whether sanctions to be announced on both sides of the Atlantic will be big, a European official simply replied: “Yes.”


In fact, Biden took the opportunity to take a shot at the US energy industry, accusing them of trying to take advantage for war profiteering less than 24 hours after the war started. Biden’s rebuke was almost as sharp toward US producers as it was toward Putin, a weird flogging of his grudge over inflation. Shouldn’t we be rallying Americans rather than accuse them of crimes that haven’t yet been committed?

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David Strom 5:21 PM on September 22, 2023
David Strom 3:21 PM on September 22, 2023