Biden’s Russia sanctions: why holding back could be part of his strategy

Numerologists will be fascinated that Joe Biden began his Ukraine speech on Tuesday at 2.22pm on 22.2.22. The US president, however, was more concerned with his own calculation of the economic and political costs of overreacting – or underreacting – to Russia’s provocations.

Biden thought he would be remembered as the pandemic president, but finds himself commanding the arsenal of democracy in what could become the biggest military assault in Europe since the second world war. The crisis escalated on Monday after Vladimir Putin recognised two breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine as independent entities, an apparent pretext for invasion.

“Who in the Lord’s name does Putin think gives him the right to declare new so-called countries on territory that belonged to his neighbours?” Biden demanded in the east room of the White House. “This is a flagrant violation of international law, and it demands a firm response from the international community.”

But the response he delivered did not go as far as some in Washington would have liked, receiving a cautious welcome from Democrats and failing to satisfy Republicans who accuse Biden of appeasement. It was a shot across Putin’s bows but also the work of an administration keeping some of its powder dry.

Biden announced sanctions that target VEB (Russia’s state development bank) and the Russian military bank, as well as the country’s sovereign debt and five Russian elites and their families.

On the last point, the elites “share the corrupt gains of the Kremlin policies and should share in the pain as well”, Biden said. These oligarchs, who live the high life in London and elsewhere, represent a potential Achilles’ heel for Putin.

Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democratic senator, told the Guardian last week: “I think he depends on having good relations with the big thieving oligarchs because if they all conspired to defeat him, he’d have to do a lot of oligarch killing and they’d see that coming. His whole world gets pretty well rocked hard. That’s his point of weakness: pressure on the oligarchs.”

For now, Biden threatened tougher steps if Russia “continues its aggression” and warned: “We’ll continue to escalate sanctions if Russia escalates.”

The logic here is that sanctions lose their potency as a deterrent if they are imposed too quickly: if somebody has been punished for something they haven’t yet done, they might as well do it anyway. But with the window for diplomacy rapidly closing, it may soon be too late for deterrence to mean anything.

Washington’s response did not have as much bite as the European Union’s . It did not grab attention like Germany’s steps to halt the process of certifying the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia – a lucrative deal long sought by Moscow.

The US has not severed Russia from the Swift banking system, used to move money around the globe, nor has it imposed export controls, which would have cut Russian firms off from key high-tech equipment and software.

Bob Menendez, a Democrat who is chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, told the MSNBC network that it is “a good first tranche of sanctions but cannot be the end of it”.

Republicans, who have been less opportunistic than usual in dinging Biden over Ukraine – perhaps sensing that the issue does not animate their base – may now be running out of patience with his determination to avoid too much too soon.

Kevin McCarthy and other Republican leaders in the House of Representatives issued a joint statement earlier on Tuesday that said: “Sadly, President Biden consistently chose appeasement and his tough talk on Russia was never followed by strong action. Lethal aid was slow-walked, anti-air and anti-ship capabilities were never directly provided, pre-invasion sanctions proportionate to the aggression Putin had already committed were never imposed, and sanctions on Nord Stream 2 were waived.”

And Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader in the Senate, revived a Republican talking point about the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. He was quoted by Punchbowl News as saying: “I don’t believe Vladimir Putin would have a couple of hundred thousand troops on the border of Ukraine had we not precipitously withdrawn from Afghanistan last August, but that’s where we are. Looking for signs of weakness.”

The Afghanistan debacle precipitated a decline in Biden’s approval rating from which he has not yet recovered. But he does appear to have learned lessons from that failure with a policy of radical transparency about intelligence, close coordination with allies and warnings to Americans that there will be no rescue operation in Ukraine.

All this has enabled him to play the role of global statesman and seasoned foreign policy hand. It has offered an unexpected boost to Biden’s promise to reunify Nato after the doubts and disarray of the Donald Trump years.

But he may yet take further hits domestically if the crises forced gas prices even higher. “Defending freedom will have costs for us as well, here at home,” Biden said. “We need to be honest about that.” Honesty, however, may not be enough to win over a distracted and divided electorate.