What Biden Could Do Next to Pressure Putin on Ukraine

7 minute read

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.”

But Biden may not be smiling for much longer. 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.

Those will continue to bite inside Russia. But a week after Russian tanks started rolling toward Kyiv, Biden has imposed nearly all he can on Russia without risking major economic disruptions to the U.S. and European economies. 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. But 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. U.S. officials are also looking closely at ways to convince other countries to ramp up oil production and sales in anticipation of Russian oil and gas sales declining over time as Russian refineries get harder to operate and countries begin looking elsewhere for fuel. The U.S., the official said, is flowing supplies of liquid natural gas to Europe from the U.S. and other places in the world.

The aim is to prepare the global market to surge energy production to offset a potential decline in Russian supply without driving prices up further for Americans. Russian oil and gas represents about 10% of the U.S. energy supply. Biden released 30 million barrels of oil from the U.S. strategic reserves on Tuesday to blunt a surge in gas prices at home, but he has been reluctant to speed up lease approvals for oil and gas drilling on federal lands that would take years to come on line and draw the ire of climate change activists. That is why the U.S. has allowed Russia to continue to take payments for energy supplies, according to the official. “We do have an overwhelming interest to downgrade Russia’s status as a leading energy supplier over time,” the official says.

The Commerce Department announced Friday it had further restricted Russian access to oil and gas extraction equipment and products needed for refining oil, and to American software and technology that might be used by the Russian 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. A task force made up of prosecutors and investigators from the Justice Department and key European allies is seizing yachts, apartments, mansions, and bank accounts of billionaires who have benefited from proximity to Putin over the years. The U.S. added dozens of new names of Russian elites to the list on Thursday. And Biden banned travel to the U.S. for more than 50 wealthy Russians, their family members, and associates. “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.

But in the end, all of these moves are aimed at getting one man to change his mind. And there are few signals that economic pain will do that any time 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.”

The Biden Administration, to avoid a direct conflict with Russia that could escalate into a nuclear war, has ruled out committing U.S. troops directly in the fight in Ukraine, instead working with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies to send weapons and ammunition to support 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 have called for the U.S. to provide more real-time tactical intelligence to Ukraine forces about Russian moves and positions. 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 could also expand sanctions in the insurance sector, which would remove insurance safety nets from 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.”

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