As Russian troops begin operations in Eastern Ukraine, President Joe Biden is gradually announcing waves of economic sanctions against the Kremlin. But to some members of Congress—on both sides of the aisle—those sanctions are already too little too late.
The sanctions, which Biden announced Tuesday, will cut off the Russian government from international debt markets and limit Russian President Vladimir Putin’s allies from shifting their wealth overseas. Biden took that step after Putin recognized the independence of two breakaway regions in Eastern Ukraine on Monday—a move which Biden called “a flagrant violation of international law.”
The new measures followed an earlier round of sanctions on Monday, and they could be followed by yet another round if Putin, as expected, continues to escalate the situation with Ukraine.
But relatively minor economic consequences seem to be doing little—both to stop Putin and to appease lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Republicans and Democrats were both peeved early this week that Biden only imposed limited economic sanctions in response to Russia’s decision to move troops into Ukraine and recognize the two rebel regions in Eastern Ukraine, the self-styled “Donetsk People’s Republic” and the “Luhansk People’s Republic.”
Biden’s original round of sanctions were only aimed at those regions themselves, which have limited banking activity anyway, and seemed to be a bit of a half-measure, as if Biden wasn’t willing to recognize that Russia was truly invading Ukraine.
For frequent GOP critics of Biden, the move was far from adequate.
“President Biden’s timid sanctions tonight are wholly unequal to this moment,” Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas said in a statement on Monday. “Russia is invading Ukraine now.”
The ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jim Risch of Idaho, also criticized Biden, noting that Russia’s actions were already “tantamount to an invasion.”
“The U.S. and our allies must immediately implement harsh sanctions that Putin cannot ignore,” Risch said.
Republicans were entirely silent about Donald Trump’s characteristic ravings, after he praised Putin as “savvy” and said he was being a “peacekeeper.”
“We could use that on our southern border,” Trump said.
Regardless, while Republicans were silent about their party leader, Democrats have been vocal about Biden’s shortcomings on the crisis in Ukraine as well.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) criticized Biden’s early response Monday evening, saying the administration ought to make its promises to back up Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression “real.”
“We must swiftly join our NATO allies and partners in the European Union to impose forceful new sanctions on Russia, on all those responsible for this dangerous violation of international law,” Coons, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said. “The time for taking action to impose significant costs on President Putin and the Kremlin starts now.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, went even further. On Tuesday, she said Putin was waging “war” on Ukraine and that the administration needed to step it up.
“Vladimir Putin’s illegal annexation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine must be met with fierce condemnation,” Shaheen said in a statement. “The administration should utilize the tools at its disposal and levy severe sanctions today.”
But, even though Biden announced an additional series of sanctions on Tuesday, some still don’t think it goes far enough.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said Biden needed to start by sanctioning Putin himself.
“Putin’s latest invasion of Ukraine is an indefensible violation of international law, regardless of whatever false pretext he offers,” Sanders said. “The United States must now work with our allies and the international community to impose serious sanctions on Putin and his oligarchs.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) also wanted more serious ramifications. While he said on Tuesday that Biden’s sanctions announcement was “a good first step,” he also warned that “bullies only understand consequences.”
“Many of us on both sides of the aisle have urged powerful economic sanctions—now bipartisan action must make it happen.”
The latest round of criticism doesn’t bode well for the delicate situation at hand. Biden and Congress have been working to present a picture of unity against Russian aggression in Ukraine for months now, as Russia built up forces along the border and made up reasons to invade.
But the divisions between Congress and the White House show that thread of unity may be poised to unravel at a pivotal moment, just as Putin has decided to lay into Ukraine.
As Putin gains approval to send troops in—under the guise of sending in so-called “peacekeepers”—time is of the essence for everyone to get on the same page to stop further invasion.
A senior administration official pushed back on the idea that both rounds of sanctions don’t go far enough Tuesday, suggesting that there is room to impose more sanctions and punishments in the days ahead if Russia takes more aggressive action in Ukraine.
“This is the beginning of an invasion and this is the beginning of our response,” the senior administration official said. “If Putin escalates further, we will escalate further.”
In a White House press briefing Tuesday evening, Deputy National Security Adviser Daleep Singh also pushed back on the notion that the sanctions were too soft to serve as a proper opening salvo.
“This is only the sharp edge of the pain we can inflict,” Singh said. “No Russian financial institution is safe if the invasion proceeds.”
Singh did not rule out sanctions affecting Putin himself. The Russian president is estimated to have amassed a fortune in the tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars through hidden stakes in Russian corporations, holdings that have been partially revealed through a series of leaked financial and legal records.
The Biden administration is prepared to use both financial sanctions and export controls, the senior official warned, adding that Russia could still get kicked out of an international banking system, which allows for foreign transfers of money between countries.
“Russia will pay an even steeper price if it continues its aggression,” Biden said Tuesday.
Some of the criticism the White House has found coming its way in the past several days appears to be self-induced. The administration has made crystal clear statements over and over again about what would be considered a Russian invasion and just how quickly the administration’s response would be.
“Any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border—that is an invasion,” Biden said last month.
“If any Russian military forces move across Ukraine’s border, that’s a renewed invasion. It will be met with swift, severe, and a united response,” Secretary of State Tony Blinken said in January amid warnings that the U.S. government would impose the harshest sanctions right from the get-go.
“The gradualism of the past is out, and this time we’ll start at the top of the escalation ladder and stay there,” a senior administration official said last month in a call. “We’ve made efforts to signal this intention very clearly.”
But the current strategy outlined by U.S. officials Tuesday—going step-by-step with sanctions that gradually get more severe—is exactly the opposite.
On a call with reporters Monday, a senior administration official waffled on whether the White House considered Russia’s latest steps in Ukraine an invasion, demurring multiple times when pressed.
When Biden called Ukrainian President Zelensky on Monday after Russia announced its intentions with the LNR and DNR, Biden “strongly condemned” Putin’s move, according to a White House readout of the call.
That’s language that’s typically reserved for times when the United States is not going to do much of anything to intervene.
Still, the White House response started to take shape on Tuesday, albeit still in a hazy form.
Jon Finer, Biden’s principal deputy national security adviser, said Tuesday that Russia’s latest actions in Ukraine are considered an “invasion.”
And Finer sought to smooth things over on all the confusion, suggesting the administration has always meant to run a gradual rollout of sanctions, despite previous claims that was not on the agenda.
“We’ve always envisioned waves of sanctions that would unfold over time,” Finer said.