U.S. mulls banning Russian oil, easing sanctions on Venezuela – Los Angeles Times


President Biden is considering a ban on imports of Russian oil while weighing actions that would boost energy production by autocracies in the hopes of mitigating the impact on American consumers and global energy markets, U.S. officials said.

“What the President is most focused on is ensuring we are continuing to take steps to deliver punishing economic consequences on Putin while taking all action necessary to limit the impact to prices at the gas pump,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.

Until now, the economic strangulation of Russia by the West over its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has avoided its robust energy sector, with administration officials suggesting that such a move could weaken the global economy.

But as Russia increases its unrelenting bombardment of Ukrainian cities, political pressure on the West has grown to do more to put pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop the onslaught. U.S. officials said the Biden administration is considering easing restrictions on imports of oil from Venezuela to ease the void left by Russian oil bans, a politically problematic step. It has also sought to convince Saudi Arabia, which has been under fire from U.S. and European officials over its human rights record, to boost oil production.

Biden spoke Monday for more than an hour with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, although the official White House readout of the conversation did not explicitly state that they discussed a ban on Russian energy.

According to the White House, “the leaders affirmed their determination to continue raising the costs on Russia for its unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine. They also underscored their commitment to continue providing security, economic, and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.”

Psaki said that administration officials are also discussing whether the U.S. would send military aircraft to Poland should its leaders send Soviet-era bombers to support Ukraine, but noted that the White House was not “preventing or blocking or discouraging” officials in Warsaw. “That is they are a sovereign country they make they make their own decisions, but it is not as easy as just moving planes around,” she said.

The U.S. has been reluctant to get ahead of European allies in responding to Putin’s aggression. And while an oil embargo from Washington would have some impact, doing so in concert with Europe would deliver far greater impact. Europe imports 4 million barrels of Russian oil a day, compared to the 700,000 barrels imported daily by the U.S.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Sunday during an interview with CNN that the administration was indeed exploring the “prospect” of an energy ban “in a coordinated way” with allies, although he did not rule out the possibility that Washington could act on its own to bar Russian oil.

“We want to make sure that we’re acting in coordination,” he said. “I’m not going to rule out taking action one way or another, irrespective of what they do, but everything we’ve done, the approach starts with coordinating with allies and partners.”

In a clear signal of how seriously the Biden administration is considering the move, U.S. officials traveled over the weekend to Caracas for talks about potentially easing sanctions imposed on the South American nation by the Trump administration in 2019. Trump took that step after declaring President Nicolas Maduro’s election victory a sham and recognizing another politician, Juan Guaido, as the country’s rightful leader, a position Biden has affirmed.

Those measures built upon similar sanctions imposed by then-President Obama, signaling the long history of trouble Washington has had with Caracas and its socialist leaders.

The Venezuela economy is reeling, despite sitting on some of the world’s largest oil reserves, and Maduro is likely eager to be free of the sanctions. However, his economy and many of his government agencies are deeply intertwined with Russian assets and advisors. Any lenience by the White House toward Maduro, even if it’s driven by a desire to crack down on Putin, could undercut Biden’s messaging about the existential threat that autocracies present to democracies.

Psaki on Monday batted away questions about a potential rapprochement with Caracas, telling reporters that any easing of sanctions was “leaping several stages ahead” of where talks currently stand.

Complicating matters has been Venezuela’s decision to imprison six executives from the Citgo oil company for the last four years. Five are U.S. citizens and the sixth a U.S. permanent resident. They were convicted in show trials on trumped-up embezzlement charges and other crimes, according to their families and human rights activists.

Psaki said discussions about the release of the men and sanctions relief were taking place “in different channels,” and not tied together.

Republicans, who have seized on the potential energy crisis to call for stepping up domestic fossil fuel production, have already made clear that they will hit the White House hard should it look to offset any ban on Russian oil by looking to foreign suppliers.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio blasted Biden in a tweet Sunday, saying: “Rather than produce more American oil, he wants to replace the oil we buy from one murderous dictator with oil from another murderous dictator.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have called for banning Russian oil.

In a joint statement Monday, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House ways and means committee and the Senate finance committee announced they planned to introduce bipartisan legislation “to [use] the tools at our disposal to stop Russia’s unconscionable and unjust war on Ukraine and to hold Belarus accountable for its involvement.”