In a speech from the East Room of the White House, President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that a set of sanctions will be imposed on Russia for recognizing the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, whose territory is internationally recognized as part of Ukraine. Biden stopped short of imposing the severest sanctions, which he promised would be imposed were Russia to invade Ukraine. He avoided, for example, going after Russia’s bigger banks, instead targeting only VEB and Russia’s military bank. He also announced sanctions on Russia’s sovereign debt and sanctions on the Russian elite and their family members. Biden said that a greater set of sanctions would be imposed were Russia to continue its aggression.
Other sanctions Biden could impose, but has not, include banning U.S. financial institutions from buying Russian bonds in the secondary market, issuing full blocking sanctions on Russian energy companies and defense firms, fully sanctioning the huge Russian banks VTB and Gazprombank, imposing export controls alongside Asian countries on technology, including semiconductors, and excluding Russia from SWIFT, the global electronic payment system.
Biden called Russia’s actions “the beginning of an invasion.” The Wall Street Journal has reported that columns of Russia military vehicles have invaded Ukraine’s Donbas region. There are many other reports that Russian troops have already moved into Ukraine. On Tuesday morning, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that Russian tanks had rolled into Ukraine, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that Russian troops had entered Donbas, and Poland’s Defense Ministry said Russian forces had entered Ukraine.
Biden’s decision to avoid imposing the full weight of Western sanctions seemed to prove true a statement he made in a press conference in late January that was broadly panned and walked back by his administration. “It’s one thing,” Biden said, “if it’s a minor incursion, and then we end up having a fight about what to do and what not do, et cetera.” That had raised concerns that NATO would fail to garner the unity necessary to impose a full set of sanctions were Russia to invade Ukraine but not conduct a full-out assault — and in doing so, repeat the West’s failures in 2008 and 2014 to counter Russia’s invasions of Georgia and Crimea.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki immediately walked back Biden’s comments after that January press conference, saying, “President Biden has been clear with the Russian President: If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies.”
Putin’s decision to openly put troops where Russian-backed forces have been for years allows him to test NATO’s commitment to imposing those severe sanctions, as some nations are likely hesitant to impose strong sanctions if Putin remains in the territories where there has long been Russian-backed aggression. Implementing severe sanctions on Russia would have major economic ramifications for the West, especially because it would accelerate Europe’s energy crisis. Europe thus far has not announced strong sanctions. The strongest move came from Chancellor of Germany Olaf Scholz, who announced that Germany would halt certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
U.S. lawmakers Tuesday called on Biden to impose severe sanctions in response to Russia’s invasion of the Donbas region. Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez said on CNN that Biden should impose the “overwhelming amount” of sanctions “now.” He continued, “I think the West, the United States has to make it very clear to Putin that the consequences begin now.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also called for sanctions to be imposed sooner rather than later: “Putin must be made to pay a far heavier price than he paid for his previous invasions of Georgia and Ukraine. This should begin, but not end, with devastating sanctions against the Kremlin and its enablers. The President should waste no time in using his extensive existing authorities to impose these costs.”
Putin’s recognition of Luhansk and Donetsk was extremely aggressive. When he recognized the territories, he ordered his military to conduct “peacekeeping operations” in the region — an obvious misnomer for sending in troops. After Putin made that announcement, Biden signed an executive order prohibiting U.S. business with those territories.
Biden said that Russia’s moves were in blatant violation of international law, but stopped short of calling it an invasion Monday night:
I have signed an Executive Order to deny Russia the chance to profit from its blatant violations of international law. We are continuing to closely consult with Allies and partners, including Ukraine, on next steps. pic.twitter.com/ZS81ivAPgs
— President Biden (@POTUS) February 22, 2022
Psaki said Monday night prior to Biden signing the bill that these measures were separate from the “swift and severe economic measures” that would be implemented “should Russia further invade Ukraine” — a seeming acknowledgement that Putin had already invaded.
On Monday night, some challenged why the Biden administration had not already imposed a full set of sanctions.
Rep. Liz Cheney, for instance, called on Biden to impose “a full set of crippling sanctions” on Russia on Monday, saying, “Russia has invaded Ukraine.”
On Tuesday, Russia’s Parliament made the recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk even more aggressive by giving consent to Putin to use troops outside of Russia, saying: “The Federation Council decides to give consent to the President of the Russian Federation for the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation outside the territory of the Russian Federation on the basis of the generally recognized principles and norms of international law.”
In a major escalation of tensions, the council also recognized the entire territory claimed by the Donetsk and Luhansk regimes as independent, not just the territory that Russian-backed forces currently occupy. As a result, Russia now officially maintains that Ukrainian forces occupy territories belonging to countries it is allied to. Putin claims that he wants the alleged border dispute to be resolved via negotiation, but the U.S. continues to predict Russia will pursue a greater invasion.
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