President Joe Biden’s plan for holding the Kremlin accountable appears too little, too late. On Feb. 22, the U.S. president — seemingly trying to sound decisive and in charge — addressed the American people, laying out sanctions he is implementing in response to Russia’s recognition of two independent regions within Ukraine.
The president pointed out that Vladimir Putin now claimed “large areas currently under the jurisdiction of the Ukraine government.” Biden then listed the sanctions, which he said go “far beyond what our allies and partners did in 2014.” He explained there would be financial penalties applied immediately. Then, if the Kremlin does not respond by backing off, there would be more severe consequences, which Biden did not describe.
Specifically, the immediate “first tranche” of actions are:
- “Full blocking sanctions” on two large financial institutions: VEB.RF, an institution similar to the Export-Import Bank, and Russia’s military bank.
- Comprehensive sanctions on Russia’s sovereign debt funds. “That means we’ve cut off Russia’s government from Western financing. It can no longer raise money from the West and cannot trade in its new debt on our markets or European markets either.”
- “In the days ahead, [we] will also impose sanctions on Russian elites and their family members.”
- “Will ensure Nord Stream 2 [gas pipeline] will not move forward” and will be permanently shut down if Putin’s forces move further into Ukraine.
The economic actions are not new initiatives, having been brought up previously to persuade Moscow to behave, but just the threat of implementing them has not been successful. Additionally, the notion of building increasing severity into the economic sanctions in reaction to Putin’s increased aggression against Kyiv is problematic. This tactic sounds similar to President Lyndon Johnson’s incremental escalation of hostilities in South Vietnam. That “tit-for-tat” strategy was not a huge success, and it’s doubtful the Biden approach will fare any better in 2022.
“We have anticipated a move like this from Russia and are ready to respond immediately,” stated Jen Psaki in a Feb. 21 press announcement. But her reaction begs the question, if you’ve anticipated such a move, where were the efforts to stop it? The Ukraine border crisis has been going on for a year, with Putin increasing the number of combat-ready Russian forces on Kyiv’s frontier. Yet, the Biden administration has done nothing but rely on diplomatic negotiations in person and on secure phone calls.
In a backgrounder call with the press later on Feb. 21, a senior administration official who spoke with reporters downplayed the Soviet-style assault on Ukraine’s eastern border, implying Russian ground forces entering the Donbas region would not be a significant change.
Shortly after Putin declared the existence of the Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic within Russian-backed seperatist eastern Ukraine, Russian “peacekeeping forces” entered the region. You may remember President Biden’s comment during his marathon two-hour press conference back in January that, as Reuters put it, “Russia would pay dearly for a full-scale invasion but … there could be a lower cost for a ‘minor incursion.'” Well, now you have it, Mr. President, what you called a minor incursion.
The national security spokesman scrambled to identify what is really going on with Russian combat forces. “We think this is, yes, the beginning of an invasion, Russia’s latest invasion into Ukraine, and you’re already seeing the beginning of our response that we have said will be swift and severe,” explained Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer.
When Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) was asked if he thought Biden’s economic punishments would bother the Kremlin, he replied, “I’m afraid not. Even the phrasing that he used, ‘the beginning of an invasion,’ it’s not the beginning of anything. It’s an invasion. Vladimir Putin and Russia’s leaders have made clear … they’re prepared to invade even deeper into Ukraine.” Cotton said that Putin had seen the timid response from Biden and the NATO allies, which emboldened him to take his action.
What the Biden administration considers “swift and severe” is debatable. The serious aggression against Ukraine by the Russian government is not. Do Biden and his team have another, more compelling plan?
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
~ Read more from Dave Patterson.