President Biden announced new sanctions Thursday on more than a dozen Russian oligarchs and their families, as pressure continued to build on Capitol Hill for an even tougher response to Moscow a week after it invaded Ukraine, particularly banning imports of Russian oil and gas.
The White House imposed sanctions on 19 wealthy Russian individuals and 47 of their family members and close associates, including President Vladimir Putin‘s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, and Alisher Usmanov, one of the wealthiest men in Russia.
Unwilling to engage Russia’s military directly, the U.S. and Europe have also increased their shipments of weapons and defense material to Ukraine in recent days, as television coverage of Russia’s unprovoked aggression and social media posts from Ukraine have galvanized the West.
Biden, outlining the new sanctions at the start of a Cabinet meeting Thursday, said prior actions to cut Russia off from the global financial system have had a “profound effect” already.
“The goal was to maximize the impact on Putin and Russia and minimize the harm on us and our allies and friends around the world,” he continued. “Our interest is in maintaining the strongest unified economic impact campaign on Putin in all history, and I think we’re well on the way to doing that.”
The U.S. restrictions will prohibit those sanctioned from traveling to the U.S.; and by targeting the elites’ family members, the administration is aiming to prevent them from easily transferring assets to spouses or children, a loophole often used in similar situations to evade sanctions.
The latest move came amid new indications from Putin that he has no intention of halting the war until he has overtaken all of Ukraine. And it marked the latest effort by Washington to force him to recalculate his strategy through a devastating economic pressure campaign.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced a team to enforce sanctions and export restrictions and to seize luxury assets belonging to Russia’s wealthiest citizens.
The administration and European allies have thus far avoided sanctioning Russia’s energy sector, attempting to mitigate the impact on global energy markets and consumers. By putting the financial screws to Russian millionaires and billionaires, the administration hopes they will be able to force those oligarchs to distance themselves from Putin and urge him to find a diplomatic off-ramp to end the war in Ukraine.
But so far the economic and geopolitical effects of the swift global response to Moscow — the ruble has nosedived, Russian planes have been barred from European and U.S. airspace, and long-neutral countries such as Finland and Sweden have suggested a newfound interest in joining NATO — have not deterred Putin. On Thursday after the Russian leader’s 90-minute telephone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, an Élysée Palace official concluded that Putin was determined to conquer Ukraine no matter the cost, stating flatly that “the worst is yet to come.”
As the shelling of Ukraine’s major cities continues a week after Putin began the invasion, political pressure continues to build in Washington to sanction Russia’s oil and gas industry.
Republicans argue that going after the country’s energy exports would cripple Russia far more dramatically than other actions the U.S. has already taken.
“Their Achilles’ heel is that their economy depends on oil and gas revenue. Never in the history of warfare have we had a chance to deliver such a decisive blow without firing a shot,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “If the Ukrainians can stand up to a tank, if a grandmother can get a rifle, surely to God we can produce more oil and gas.”
Several Republicans as well as Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana have introduced bills to ban the U.S. import of Russian oil.
Although Europe is far more dependent on Russian energy resources, the U.S. buys almost 700,000 barrels of oil per day from Russia, according to Sen. Daniel Sullivan (R-Alaska).
“That’s $17 billion that we are putting into Putin’s war chest,” he said. “This is national security suicide.”
So far, the administration has shied away from oil and gas sanctions. The move, likely to wreak hardship on ordinary Russians, could rally them behind their leader. At the same time, such measures would likely increase oil prices on the global market and could lead to significant economic and political pushback at home.
“The president’s objective has been to maximize impact on President Putin and Russia while minimizing impact to us and our allies and partners,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. “We don’t have a strategic interest in reducing the global supply of energy.”
Many Democrats are skeptical of the idea, in part because it would require the U.S. to increase domestic production to make up for it, but top House Democrats are on board.
“I’m all for that. Ban it,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) reiterated the same stance.
While Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.) said not buying Russian oil “feels like the right thing to do,” he expressed skepticism that Congress should start freelancing foreign policy separately from the White House.
“There’s no reason for us to doubt the competence and effectiveness of this administration on Ukraine policy,” he said. “They have performed beyond people’s wildest expectations, and I don’t know that this is the moment for Congress to be setting a different direction from the administration.”