Biden's Sanctions Package Seems Calculated to Avoid Damaging Russia's Economy, So Why Bother?

Biden's Sanctions Package Seems Calculated to Avoid Damaging Russia's Economy, So Why Bother?
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

On Thursday, President Joe Biden, the stumblebum of the Free World, shuffled to the lectern and pronounced the penalities that he would impose on Russia after it launched an outright invasion of Ukraine Wednesday night (Putin Officially Launches a Full Invasion of Ukraine, Lodges Disturbing New Threats Against the West).

The transcript of this press conference is at the bottom of the page.

In the past, Biden has promised “severe sanctions” against Russia should it do what it did Wednesday. He has also threatened Vladimir Putin with personal sanctions. His dire threats were shown to be toothless on Monday when Putin recognized the independence of the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk (Vladimir Putin Runs the Table in Ukraine and Shows Joe Biden to Be a Feckless and Unreliable Security Partner) and ordered Russian peacekeepers into those regions (Vladimir Putin Orders Russian Peacekeeping Troops Into Eastern Ukraine). My post on Biden’s sanctions lays bare the fact that they were blue-smoke-and-mirrors designed to deceive the American people while doing virtually nothing to penalize Russia. One of the banks sanctioned has been under U.S. sanctions since 2014, so this amounted to a case of super double special sanctions (Potemkin Sanctions by a Potemkin President; One of the Banks Sanctioned by Biden Was Sanctioned in 2014).

Yesterday, relying on a list developed by  Marshall Billingslea,  Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing in the Trump Treasury department, I provided a checklist of potential sanctions in descending order of severity (Preview of Joe Biden’s Speech on the Russian Invasion of Ukraine).

  • Sanction the Russian Central Bank.
  • Sanction the full financial sector sanctions rather than a handful of banks.
  • Ban Russia from SWIFT.
  • Sanction other export sectors (minerals, timber).
  • Impose full export controls.
  • Sanction Putin, personally.
  • Sanction all the major oligarchs.
  • Require payments for oil and gas into blocked escrow bank accounts held by non-Russian financial institutions outside Russia.

Biden did none of these. Billingslea reviewed the sanctions actually imposed and evaluated their impact.

1/10 Below are the sanctions. In my view, not nearly severe enough to jolt the Russian economy in a way that might cause Putin to reconsider, or to rupture the elites. The sanctions on Sberbank and VTB will be felt, but numerous other banks go untouched

2/10 Because the GoR dominates the financial services industry, they are able to shift assets & reconstitute sanctioned banks to evade our measures. By failing to designate the entire financial sector, Russia will be able to engineer its way around these bank-specific steps.

3/10 As a case in point, the Russian Government owns a majority stake in 4 of the 5 banks sanctioned today. (They also completely own the 2 banks Biden sanctioned 2 days ago).

4/10 By not designating the Central Bank, & by using the EU as an excuse not to go after SWIFT, Biden has not disrupted Russia’s cross-border & multi-currency settlement process. This means Russia’s ability to export & run a major balance of trade surplus hasn’t been degraded…

5/10 And this matters because, among other things, the Central Bank will burn through foreign reserves far less quickly as it tries to shore up the rouble and fights off inflation — things that could generate mass unrest & real discontent with Putin.

6/10 Nor did Biden target the money-making export sectors of their economy. No sectoral sanctions on metals & minerals, timber, plastics, or machine parts (all of which account for ~30% of Russia’s trade surplus). However his expansion of debt/equity restrictions to SOEs is good

7/10 He explicitly left oil and gas exports untounched, though he could have adopted a “lock-box” approach using blocked escrow accounts, as we did in the case of Iran. Russia fuels much of its budget (incl military) through extraction taxes, export duties, & a profit-based levy.

8/10 No sanctions today on any of the really “big-fish” oligarchs, or on Putin himself.

9/10 Biden does appear to have delivered on certain export controls which will, like the debt and equity restrictions, gradually degrade the economic competitiveness of certain Russian companies and SOEs. These measures, as @POTUS acknowledged may take some time to be felt.

10/10 @POTUS repeatedly said that his sanctions would be felt over time. Unfortunately, with war erupting in Europe & civilians dying, time is not a luxury we have. Biden had the opportunity to deliver a severe, consequential shock to the Russian system. But he didn’t.

What did not happen were the imposition of either “severe sanctions,” and the architect of the crisis, Vladimir Putin, was not personally sanctioned. Biden persisted in his lie that sanctioning a small number of Russian banks by preventing them from dealing with U.S. banks was a harsher blow than banning them from the international financial system called SWIFT. The sanctioned banks are given 30 days to wind down their operations in the United States.  The Russian “energy sector” is off-limits to all sanctions.

When one digs into the definition of “energy sector,” one finds it is rather expansive.

For the purposes of this general license, the term “related to energy” means the extraction, production, refinement, liquefaction, gasification, regasification, conversion, enrichment, fabrication, transport, or purchase of petroleum, including crude oil, lease condensates, unfinished oils, natural gas liquids, petroleum products, natural gas, or other products capable of producing energy, such as coal, wood, or agricultural products used to manufacture biofuels, or uranium in any form, as well as the development, production, generation, transmission, or exchange of power, through any means, including nuclear, thermal, and renewable energy sources.

The category of wood opens the door for Russia to continue to export wood products (about $10 billion per year) and biomass (mainly wood pellets) products (several billion dollars worth, but the numbers are less than clear). In addition, Russian exports of coal briquettes ($18 billion per year) and coal (about $15 billion per year) are also substantial.

The text of the export ban letter is below.

Energy Sanctions Against Russia by streiff on Scribd

Biden had the opportunity and the reason to hammer Russia with sanctions that would put Vladimir Putin’s hold on power in doubt. He didn’t. He chose to go with a symbolic effort that does little to punish Russia. Worse than that, he’s teaching our adversaries that sanctions are meaningless, and they are better off simply taking whatever action they wish and brushing off the consequences.


THE PRESIDENT: Sorry to keep you waiting. Good afternoon. The Russian military has begun a brutal assault on the people of Ukraine without provocation, without justification, without necessity.

This is a premeditated attack. Vladimir Putin has been planning this for months, as I’ve been — as we’ve been saying all along. He moved more than 175,000 troops, military equipment into positions along the Ukrainian border.

He moved blood supplies into position and built a field hospital, which tells you all you need to know about his intentions all along.

He rejected every good-faith effort the United States and our Allies and partners made to address our mutual security concerns through dialogue to avoid needless conflict and avert human suffering.

For weeks — for weeks, we have been warning that this would happen. And now it’s unfolding largely as we predicted.

In the past week, we’ve seen shelling increase in the Donbas, the region in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists.

Rus- — the Russian government has perpetrated cyberattacks against Ukraine.

We saw a staged political theater in Moscow — outlandish and baseless claims that Ukraine was — Ukraine was about to invade and launch a war against Russia, that Ukraine was prepared to use chemical weapons, that Ukraine committed a genocide — without any evidence.

We saw a flagrant violation of international law in attempting to unilaterally create two new so-called republics on sovereign Ukrainian territory.

And at the very moment that the United Nations Security Council was meeting to stand up for Ukraine’s sovereignty to stave off invasion, Putin declared his war.

Within moments — moments, missile strikes began to fall on historic cities across Ukraine.

Then came in the air raids, followed by tanks and troops rolling in.

We’ve been transparent with the world. We’ve shared declassified evidence about Russia’s plans and cyberattacks and false pretexts so that there can be no confusion or cover-up about what Putin was doing.

Putin is the aggressor. Putin chose this war. And now he and his country will bear the consequences.

Today, I’m authorizing additional strong sanctions and new limitations on what can be exported to Russia.

This is going to impose severe costs on the Russian economy, both immediately and over time.

We have purposefully designed these sanctions to maximize the long-term impact on Russia and to minimize the impact on the United States and our Allies.

And I want to be clear: The United States is not doing this alone. For months, we’ve been building a coalition of partners representing well more than half of the global economy.

Twenty-seven members of the European Union, including France, Germany, Italy — as well as the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and many others — to amplify the joint impact of our response.

I just spoke with the G7 leaders this morning, and we are in full and total agreement. We will limit Russia’s ability to do business in Dollars, Euros, Pounds, and Yen to be part of the global economy. We will limit their ability to do that. We are going to stunt the ability to finance and grow Rus- — the Russian military.

We’re going to impose major — and we’re going to impair their ability to compete in a high-tech 21st century economy.

We’ve already seen the impact of our actions on Russia’s currency, the Ruble, which early today hit its weakest level ever — ever in history. And the Russian stock market plunged today. The Russian government’s borrowing rate spiked by over 15 percent.

In today’s actions, we have now sanctioned Russian banks that together hold around $1 trillion in assets.

We’ve cut off Russia’s largest bank — a bank that holds more than one third of Russia’s banking assets by itself — cut it off from the U.S. financial system.

And today, we’re also blocking four more major banks. That means every asset they have in America will be frozen. This includes V.T.B., the second-largest bank in Russia, which has $250 billion in assets.

As promised, we’re also adding names to the list of Russian elites and their family members that are sanctioning — that we’re sanctioning as well.

As I said on Tuesday, these are people who personally gain from the Kremlin’s policies and they should share in the pain. We will keep up this drumbeat of those designations against corrupt billionaires in the days ahead.

On Tuesday, we stopped the Russian government from raising money from U.S. or European investors.

Now, we’re going to apply the same restrictions to Russia’s largest state-owned enterprises — companies with assets that exceed $1.4 trillion.

Some of the most powerful impacts of our actions will come over time as we squeeze Russia’s access to finance and technology for strategic sectors of its economy and degrade its industrial capacity for years to come.

Between our actions and those of our Allies and partners, we estimate that we’ll cut off more than half of Russia’s high-tech imports.

It will strike a blow to their ability to continue to modernize their military. It’ll degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program. It will hurt their ability to build ships, reducing their ability to compete economically. And it will be a major hit to Putin’s long-term strategic ambitions.

And we’re preparing to do more. In addition to the economic penalties we’re imposing, we’re also taking steps to defend our NATO Allies, particularly in the east.

Tomorrow, NATO will convene a summit — we’ll be there — to bring together the leaders of 30 Allied nations and close partners to affirm our solidarity and to map out the next steps we will take to further strengthen all aspects of our NATO Alliance.

Although we provided over $650 million in defensive assistance to Ukraine just this year — this last year, let me say it again: Our forces are not and will not be engaged in the conflict with Russia in Ukraine. Our forces are not going to Europe to fight in Ukraine but to defend our NATO Allies and reassure those Allies in the east.

As I made crystal clear, the United States will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power. And the good news is: NATO is more united and more determined than ever.

There is no doubt — no doubt that the United States and every NATO Ally will meet our Article 5 commitments, which says that an attack on one is an attack on all.

Over the past few weeks, I ordered thousands of additional forces to Germany and Poland as part of our commitment to NATO.

On Tuesday, in response to Russia’s aggressive action, including its troop presence in Belarus and the Black Sea, I’ve authorized the deployment of ground and air forces already stationed in Europe to NATO’s eastern flank Allies: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania.

Our Allies have also been stepping up, adding — the other Allies, the rest of NATO — adding their own forces and capabilities to ensure our collective defense.

And today, within hours of Russia’s unleashing its assault, NATO came together and authorized and activated — an activation of response plans.

This will enable NATO’s high-readiness forces to deploy and — when and where they’re needed to protect our NATO Allies on the eastern boundaries of Europe.

And now I’m authorizing additional U.S. forces and capabilities to deploy to Germany as part of NATO’s response, including some of U.S.-based forces that the Department of Defense placed on standby weeks ago.

I’ve also spoken with Defense Secretary Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Milley, about preparations for additional moves should they become necessary to protect our NATO Allies and support the greatest military Alliance in the history of the world — NATO.

As we respond, my administration is using the tools — every tool at our disposal to protect American families and businesses from rising prices at the gas pump.

You know, we’re taking active steps to bring down the costs. And American oil and gas companies should not — should not exploit this moment to hike their prices to raise profits.

You know, in our sanctions package, we specifically designed to allow energy payments to continue.

We are closely monitoring energy supplies for any disruption. We have been coordinating with major oil producing and consuming countries toward our common interest to secure global energy supplies.

We are actively working with countries around the world to elevate [evaluate] a collective release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserves of major energy-consuming countries. And the United States will release additional barrels of oil as conditions warrant.

I know this is hard and that Americans are already hurting. I will do everything in my power to limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump. This is critical to me.

But this aggression cannot go unanswered. If it did, the consequences for America would be much worse. America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.

Let me also repeat the warning I made last week: If Russia pursues cyberattacks against our companies, our critical infrastructure, we are prepared to respond.

For months, we have been working closely with our private — with the private sector to harden their cyber defenses, sharpen our ability to respond to Russian cyberattacks as well.

I spoke late last night to President Zelenskyy of Ukraine and I assured him that the United States, together with our Allies and partners in Europe, will support the Ukrainian people as they defend their country. We’ll provide humanitarian relief to ease their suffering.

And in the early days of this conflict, Russian propaganda outlets will keep trying to hide the truth and claim success for its military operation against a made-up threat.

But history has shown time and again how swift gains in territory eventually give way to grinding occupations, acts of mass civil — mass civil disobedience, and strategic dead-ends.

The next few weeks and months will be hard on the people of Ukraine. Putin has unleashed a great pain on them. But the Ukrainian people have known 30 years of independence, and they have repeatedly shown that they will not tolerate anyone who tries to take their country backwards.

This is a dangerous moment for all of Europe, for the freedom around the world. Putin has a — has committed an assault on the very principles that uphold global peace.

But now the entire world sees clearly what Putin and his Kremlin — and his Kremlin allies are really all about. This was never about genuine security concerns on their part. It was always about naked aggression, about Putin’s desire for empire by any means necessary — by bullying Russia’s neighbors through coercion and corruption, by changing borders by force, and, ultimately, by choosing a war without a cause.

Putin’s actions betray his sinister vision for the future of our world — one where nations take what they want by force.

But it is a vision that the United States and freedom-loving nations everywhere will oppose with every tool of our considerable power.

The United States and our Allies and partners will emerge from this stronger, more united, more determined, and more purposeful.

And Putin’s aggression against Ukraine will end up costing Russia dearly — economically and strategically. We will make sure of that. Putin will be a pariah on the international stage. Any nation that countenances Russia’s naked aggression against Ukraine will be stained by association.

When the history of this era is written, Putin’s choice to make a totally unjustifiable war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger.

Liberty, democracy, human dignity — these are the forces far more powerful than fear and oppression. They cannot be extinguished by tyrants like Putin and his armies. They cannot be erased by people — from people’s hearts and hopes by any amount of violence and intimidation. They endure.

And in the contest between democracy and autocracy, between sovereignty and subjugation, make no mistake: Freedom will prevail.

God bless the people of a free and democratic Ukraine. And may God protect our troops.

Q President Biden —

THE PRESIDENT: Associated Press, Zeke.

Q Chris Megerian. So, do you have any plans to speak with President Putin at this point? And what interactions have you had with the Russian government?

THE PRESIDENT: I heard the first part: Do I have any plans to speak with Putin at this point. And what?

Q What communications have you had with the Kremlin as far as military (inaudible) in Ukraine and making sure this does not spiral into a larger conflict?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, it’s a large conflict already. The way we’re going to assure it’s not going to spiral to a larger conflict is by providing all the forces needed in the Eastern European nations that are members of NATO. NATO is more united than it’s ever been.

And I have no plans to talk with Putin.

Wall Street Journal, Tarina [Tarini].

Q Mr. President, you didn’t mention SWIFT in your sanctions that you announced. Is there a reason why the U.S. isn’t doing that? Is there disagreement among Allies regarding SWIFT and whether Russia should be allowed to be a part of it?

THE PRESIDENT: The sanctions that we have proposed on all their banks is of equal consequence — maybe more consequence than SWIFT — number one.

Number two, it is always an option. But right now, that’s not the position that the rest of Europe wishes to take.

Cecilia Ve- — Vega, A.B.C.

Q Thank you, sir. Sir, sanctions clearly have not been enough to deter Vladimir Putin to this point. What is going to stop him? How and when does this end? And do you see him trying to go beyond Ukraine?

And a second question I’ll just give to you now: This statement that he gave last night will — that the We- — the threat that he gave — the West “will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history.” Is he threatening a nuclear strike?

THE PRESIDENT: I have no idea what he’s threatening. I know what he has done, number one.

And number two, no one expected the sanctions to prevent anything from happening. That has to sh- — this is going to take time. And we have to show resolve so he knows what’s coming and so the people of Russia know what he’s brought on them. That’s what this is all about.

This is going to take time. It’s not going to occur — he’s going to say, “Oh my God, these sanctions are coming. I’m going to stand down.”

He’s going to test the resolve of the West to see if we stay together. And we will. We will and it will impose significant costs on him.

Q Will he go beyond Ukraine, sir? Do you see him going beyond Ukraine?

Q Mr. President — Mr. President —

THE PRESIDENT: (Points to reporter.) Yes.

Q Thank you. Two topics, just really quick. First, markets are down and gas prices are up. I know you always stress the difference between Wall Street and Main Street, but everybody seems to be in for some economic pain. How economically painful is it going to get for people in this country?

And I do have one more question.

THE PRESIDENT: First of all, there’s no doubt that when a major nuclear power attacks and invades another country that the world is going to respond and markets are going to respond all over the world. So, there’s no doubt about that, number one.

Number two, the notion that this is going to last for a long time is highly unlikely, as long as we continue to stay resolved in imposing the sanctions we’re going to impose on Russia, period.

What’s your next question? I’m sorry.

Q The next question is: Did you underestimate Putin? And would you still describe him the way that you did in the summer, as a “worthy adversary”?

THE PRESIDENT: At the time, he was — I made it clear he was an adversary, and I said he was “worthy.” I didn’t underestimate him.

And I’ve read most of everything he’s written. Did you read the — I shouldn’t sa- — I’m not being a wise guy. The — you heard the speech he made — almost an hour’s worth of speeches — why he was going into Ukraine.

He has much larger ambitions in Ukraine. He wants to, in fact, reestablish the former Soviet Union. That’s what this is about.

And I think that his — his ambitions are — are completely contrary to the place where the rest of the world has arrived.

Q President Biden — President Biden —

Q And — and with that — with his ambitions, you’re confident that these devastating sanctions are going to be as devastating as Russian missiles and bullets and tanks?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes. Russian bullets, missiles, and tanks in Ukraine. Yes, I am.

Q Thank you, President Biden. If sanctions cannot stop President Putin, what penalty can?

THE PRESIDENT: I didn’t say sanctions couldn’t stop him.

Q But you’ve been talking about the threat of these sanctions for several weeks now —

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, but the threat of the sanctions and imposing the sanctions and seeing the effect of the sanctions are two different things.

Q Okay, but —

THE PRESIDENT: They’re two different things. And we’re now going to — he’s going to begin to see the effect of the sanctions.

Q And what will that do — how will that change his mindset here, given he’s attacking Ukraine as we speak?

THE PRESIDENT: Because it will so weaken his country that he’ll have to make a very, very difficult choices of whether to continue to move toward being a second-rate power or, in fact, respond.

Q You said, in recent weeks, that big nations cannot bluff when it comes to something like this. You recently said that the idea of personally sanctioning President Putin was on the table. Is that a step that you’re prepared to take? And if not —

THE PRESIDENT: It’s not a bluff; it’s on the table.

Q Sanctioning President Putin?


Q Why not sanction him today, sir? Why not sanction him today, sir?

Q Mr. President —

Q Mr. President, if I can, you detailed some severe and swift new sanctions today and said the impact it will have over time, but given the full-scale invasion, given that you’re not pursuing disconnecting Russia from what’s called “SWIFT” — the international banking system — or other sanctions at your disposal, respectfully, sir, what more are you waiting for?

THE PRESIDENT: Specifically, the sanctions we’ve imposed exceed SWIFT. The sanctions we imposed exceed anything that’s ever been done. The sanctions we imposed have generated two thirds of the world joining us. They are profound sanctions. Let’s have a conversation in another month or so to see if they’re working.


Q Let me ask you about — can I ask you about Zelenskyy? Sir, you spoke to Volodymyr Zelenskyy yesterday, sir, if I could follow up —

Q What’s the risk that we are watching the beginning of another Cold War? And is there now a complete rupture in U.S. and Russian relations?

THE PRESIDENT: There is a complete rupture right now in U.S.-Russian relations if they continue on this path that they’re on.

And in terms of a Cold War, that depends. You have the vast majority of the rest of the world in total opposition to what he’s doing — from Asia to South America to Europe to acr- — around the world.

And so, it’s going to be a cold day for Russia. The idea — you don’t see a whole lot of people coming to his defense.

Q And are you — are you — if I could follow-up, sir. Are you urging China to help isolate Russia? Are you urging China to help isolate Russia?

THE PRESIDENT: I’m not prepared to comment on that at the moment.

(Cross-talk by reporters.)

Q Mr. President —

THE PRESIDENT: Wait. No, no. (Points to reporter.) Yeah.

No, no, no. He’s had his hand up a long time.

Q Thank you, Mr. President. How concerned are you that Putin wants to go beyond Ukraine into other countries and the U.S. will have to get involved if he moves into NATO countries?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, if he did move into NATO countries, he will be involved — we will be involved. The only thing that I’m convinced of is: If we don’t stop now, he’ll be emboldened. If we don’t move against him now with these significant sanctions, he will be emboldened.

Look, you know, every — well, anyway.

Q And can you talk anything more about your conversation —

(Cross-talk by reporters.)

THE PRESIDENT: I’m sorry, I can’t hear you.

Q Sir, India, which is a major defense partner of the United States — is India with — fully with you on the issue of Ukraine and Russia?

THE PRESIDENT: Does the Defense Department of the United States —

Q Sir, India is one of your major defense partners. Is India fully in sync with United States on Russia?

THE PRESIDENT: We’re going to be — we’re in consultation with — with India today. We haven’t resolved that completely.

Q One more question —

(Cross-talk by reporters.)

THE PRESIDENT: Okay, thank you all very much. Thank you.

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