Sanctions seen as wider statement

Sanctions seen as wider statement

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WASHINGTON — As they impose historic sanctions on Russia, the Biden administration and European governments have set new goals: to devastate the Russian economy as punishment for the world to witness, and to create domestic pressure on President Vladimir Putin to halt his war in Ukraine, current and former U.S. officials say.

The penalties — which have hammered the ruble, shut down Russia’s stock market and prompted bank runs — contradict previous declarations by U.S. officials that they would refrain from inflicting pain on ordinary Russians.

“We target them carefully to avoid even the appearance of targeting the average Russian civilian,” Daleep Singh, deputy national security adviser for international economics, said at a White House briefing last month.

The escalation in sanctions this week has occurred much faster than many officials had anticipated, largely because European leaders have embraced the most aggressive measures proposed by Washington, U.S. officials said.

With Russia’s economy crumbling, major companies including Apple, Boeing and Shell are suspending or exiting operations in the country. The Biden administration said Thursday that it would not offer sanctions relief amid Putin’s increasingly brutal offensive.

The thinking among some U.S. and European officials is that Putin might stop the war if enough Russians protest in the streets and enough tycoons turn on him. Other U.S. officials emphasize the goals of punishment and future deterrence, saying the carcass of the Russian economy will serve as a visible consequence of Putin’s actions and a warning for other aggressors.

But Russia’s $1.5 trillion economy is the world’s 11th largest. No countries have tried pushing an economy of that size to the brink of collapse, with unknown consequences for the world.

The moves have also ignited questions in Washington and in European capitals over whether cascading events in Russia could lead to “regime change,” or rulership collapse, which President Joe Biden and European leaders are careful to avoid mentioning.

“The economic costs that we’ve been forced to impose on Russia are not aimed at you,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a news conference Wednesday. “They are aimed at compelling your government to stop its actions, to stop its aggression.”

The harshest sanctions by far are ones that prevent the Central Bank of Russia from tapping into much of its $643 billion in foreign currency reserves, which has led to a steep drop in the value of the ruble. Panic has set in across Russia. Citizens are scrambling to withdraw money from banks, preferably in dollars, and some are fleeing the country.

The United States and Europe also announced new sanctions this week against oligarchs with close ties to Putin. Officials are moving to seize their houses, yachts and private jets around the world. French officials Thursday snatched the giant yacht of Igor Sechin, CEO of Rosneft — the Russian state oil giant.

“The sanctions have turned out to be quite unprecedented,” said Maria Snegovaya, a visiting scholar at George Washington University who has studied U.S. sanctions on Russia. “Everybody in Russia is horrified. They’re trying to think of the best way to preserve their money.”

On Friday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on Fox News, “The best way for this to end is having Eliot Ness or Wyatt Earp in Russia, the Russian Spring, so to speak, where people rise up and take him down.”

Graham added: “So I’m hoping somebody in Russia will understand that he’s destroying Russia and you need to take this guy out by any means possible,” reiterating his Twitter post calling for an assassination of Putin.

Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, called the talk of Putin’s overthrow unhelpful, emphasizing that the sanctions should be tailored and described as a means of stopping the invasion.

“The objective should be to end the war,” he said.

All the while, Biden officials have sought to assure the Russian people that they take no pleasure in their suffering. The U.S. and Europe have tried to spare Russians some of the effects, including allowing sales of consumer technology to Russia despite sweeping new limits on exports.

They have also refrained from imposing energy sanctions because of Europe’s dependence on Russian gas and the risk of higher oil prices.

As its economy trembled, Russia suspended trading on its stock market. On a Russian news program, Alexander Butmanov, an investment analyst, raised a toast and said, “Dear stock market, you were close to us, you were interesting. Rest in peace, dear comrade.”

Some Russians this week were driving to borders with bags of cash. But if the goal of sanctions is to compel Putin to halt his war, then the endpoint seems far off, experts say.

“The Russian political system doesn’t depend on the people’s approval. That matters, but it’s not the most important thing,” Snegovaya said. “It might depend on the scale of the crisis — if we see lots of protests in the streets, it might make the Kremlin think twice.”

    People stand in line to get cash from an ATM at a shopping mall in Moscow on Sunday. Economic sanctions against Russia‚Äôs Central Bank have sent the ruble tumbling. (The New York Times)
 
 

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