Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 15 April 2021


Biden sanctions Russia — but pulls punches. Putin will not be deterred.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Alexei Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images)

The administration called the new sanctions “sweeping,” and compared with the grudging steps previously taken by Mr. Trump, they were. But punches were pulled. U.S. banks were banned from purchasing ruble-denominated Russian debt, but only in the primary market; other international investors will likely still buy Russian bonds knowing they can be resold to U.S. institutions. Six Russian cyber firms were targeted, all of which have close ties to the military or intelligence agencies. But Russian energy and mineral firms that bring in the bulk of the country’s foreign earnings were left untouched — as were the several dozen oligarchs who prop up the regime and manage Mr. Putin’s personal wealth.

The administration did not respond at all to the most serious allegations concerning Russia: that it paid bounties for the killing of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, and sponsored the mysterious attacks that seriously injured U.S. diplomats and spies in Moscow, Havana and China. Officials explained they had only low-to-moderate confidence about the Afghanistan operation, while CIA Director William J. Burns told Congress Wednesday he was still seeking to “get to the bottom” of the injuries of his officers and diplomats. The lack of any response, if it persists, will be glaring.

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White House officials said the package was carefully calibrated in the hope that the Biden administration can still induce Mr. Putin to cooperate in some areas. U.S. policy, one told reporters, “will involve a mix of significant pressure and finding ways to work together” — a point underlined by Mr. Biden’s suggestion of a summit meeting in a phone call with Mr. Putin on Tuesday. In theory, the two-track policy makes sense. But the U.S. moderation comes at a moment when Mr. Putin is acting more belligerently than ever. In recent weeks, Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s borders while threatening a war that would “destroy” the country. Meanwhile, the regime appears to be slowly murdering Mr. Putin’s leading opponent, Alexei Navalny, in a prison camp.

Perhaps Mr. Putin will react to Mr. Biden’s relative restraint with some of his own. If he pulls back troops from Ukraine and frees Mr. Navalny, as the United States and its allies have called for, the administration’s initiative will be judged a success. If the Russian leader shrugs off these measures that have no effect on his power base, and continues seeking to disrupt the U.S. economy, political system and alliances, the Biden administration will have to be ready with fresh sanctions — ones with more bite than bark.

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