WASHINGTON – As they impose historic sanctions on Russia, the Biden administration and European governments have set new goals: to destroy the Russian economy as the punishment the world is witnessing, and to put domestic pressure on President Vladimir V. Putin over his war in Ukraine to stop, current and former US officials say.
The harsh penalties — which have hammered the ruble, shut down the Russian stock market and led to bank runs — contradict previous statements by US officials that they would refrain from inflicting pain on ordinary Russians. “We are carefully targeting them to avoid even the appearance of targeting the average Russian citizen,” Daleep Singh, the deputy national security adviser for international economics, said at a White House briefing last month.
The escalation of sanctions this week has been much faster than many officials expected, largely because European leaders have embraced the most aggressive measures proposed by Washington, US officials said.
As the Russian economy crumbles, major companies including Apple, Boeing and Shell are suspending or shutting down their operations in the country. The Biden administration said on Thursday it would offer no sanctions relief amid Putin’s increasingly brutal offensive.
The thinking among some US and European officials is that Mr. Putin could end the war if enough Russians protest in the streets and enough tycoons turn on him. Other US officials emphasize the goals of punishment and future deterrence, saying the carcass of the Russian economy will serve as a visible consequence of Mr Putin’s actions and a warning to other aggressors.
But Russia’s $1.5 trillion economy is the 11th largest in the world. No country has attempted to push an economy of that size to the brink of collapse, with unknown consequences for the world. And the actions of the United States and Europe could pave the way for a new kind of superpower conflict in the future.
The measures have also raised questions in Washington and in European capitals about whether successive events in Russia could lead to “regime change” or the collapse of the rule, which President Biden and European leaders carefully avoid mentioning.
“This is not the war of the Russian people,” Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken said at a news conference on Wednesday. But, he added, “the Russian people will suffer the consequences of their leaders’ choices.”
“The economic costs we had to impose on Russia are not aimed at you,” he said. “They are meant to force your government to stop its actions, to stop its aggression.”
The toughest sanctions by far are those that prevent the Central Bank of Russia from tapping much of its $643 billion in foreign exchange reserves, leading to a sharp drop in the ruble’s value. Panic strikes all over Russia. Citizens are rushing 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 Mr Putin. Officials move to seize their homes, yachts and private jets around the world. French officials on Thursday captured the superyacht of Igor Sechin, the chief executive of Rosneft, the Russian state oil giant.
“The sanctions have turned out to be quite unprecedented,” said Maria Snegovaya, a visiting scientist at George Washington University who has studied U.S. sanctions against Russia. “Everyone in Russia is shocked. They’re trying to think about the best way to keep their money.”
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire has used the harshest language yet to word the mission, telling a radio program on Tuesday that Western countries are “waging an all-out economic and financial war against Russia” to “end the collapse to cause”. of the Russian economy.” He later said he regretted his words.
Evidence of shock and anger among Russians – mostly anecdotal in a country with limited speech and few opinion polls – has raised the specter of mass political discord, which, if strong enough, could threaten Mr Putin’s grip on power .
South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on Fox News, “The best way to end this is to have Eliot Ness or Wyatt Earp in Russia, the Russian Spring, so to speak, where people get up and take down.”
Graham added: “So I hope someone in Russia will understand that he is destroying Russia, and you have to take out this man in every way possible,” he repeats. his Twitter post on Thursday calling for the assassination of Mr Putin.
A spokesman for Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Monday the sanctions were “intended to topple Putin’s regime”. Mr Johnson’s office quickly corrected the statement, saying it did not reflect his government’s position and that the aim of the measures was to stop the Russian attack on Ukraine.
Michael A. McFaul, a former US ambassador to Moscow, called the talk of Mr Putin’s overthrow futile and stressed that sanctions should be adjusted and described as a means of stopping the invasion. “The goal should be to end the war,” he said.
But while the Biden administration has said it is still open to diplomacy with Russia, it has not offered to lift the sanctions in exchange for de-escalation.
“Right now, they are marching in a convoy to Kiev and are reportedly continuing to take barbaric steps against the people of Ukraine,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday. “So no, this is not the time when we offer options to reduce sanctions.”
But in an interview with the Russian news agency TASS on Friday, Victoria J. Nuland, the US secretary of state for political affairs, set conditions for possible sanctions to be lifted, albeit maximalist. She said Mr Putin needed to end the war, help Ukraine “rebuild” and recognize its sovereignty, borders and right to exist. Those are conditions that the Russian leader is highly unlikely to consider.
All along, Biden officials have been trying to assure the Russian people that they take no pleasure in their suffering. The United States and Europe have tried to spare the Russians some of the effects, including allowing the sale of consumer technology to Russia despite sweeping new export restrictions.
They have also refrained from imposing energy sanctions due to Europe’s reliance on Russian gas and the risk of higher oil prices.
Still, Mr Putin and his aides are doing their best to gain some political advantage from the sanctions, arguing that the real goal of the West has always been to weaken Russia. When he launched his invasion last week, Mr Putin said the United States would have sanctioned his country “whatever happens.”
In an interview with Al Jazeera on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov said the sanctions were intended to “affect ordinary people” and that the West had halted cultural exchange programs and even Russian sports teams.
Whatever their exact purpose, sanctions have a poor track record in convincing governments to change their behavior. The Trump administration’s sanctions against Iran, arguably the strictest imposed on any country, have failed to force Tehran to stop supporting militias in the Middle East or halt its uranium enrichment efforts after President Donald J. Trump withdrew from a nuclear deal. North Korea has continued with a nuclear weapons program despite major sanctions from four US presidents.
The same is largely true of US sanctions against Syria, Cuba and Venezuela.
At times, the US government has achieved modest goals with sanctions. Some analysts and US officials allege that Iran began negotiations for a nuclear deal after the Obama administration imposed sanctions. Trump administration officials said sanctions helped North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un meet with Mr Trump (along with Twitter posts and letters between the leaders).
And some former Obama officials, including those now serving in the Biden administration, have argued that sanctions against Russia in 2014 prevented Mr Putin from penetrating deeper into Ukraine after he annexed Crimea and started a separatist war. the east of the country had begun.
This winter, the Biden administration used the threat of sanctions to try to stop Mr Putin from invading Ukraine. It warned that the measures would be strict, but did not go into details. US officials did not publicly mention the possibility of sanctioning Russia’s central bank – the most severe sanction imposed to date – because they were unsure whether European countries would be on board, a former US official said.
After the United States, Britain and the European Union announced sanctions against the central bank, the ruble plummeted on Monday. The bank no longer has access to foreign exchange reserves held outside of Russia, so it cannot use those assets to buy rubles and support their value. The Ministry of Finance has also imposed sanctions on a number of Russian state-owned companies that have foreign currencies that the central bank could tap.
While its economy trembled, Russia suspended trading in its stock market. On a Russian news program, Alexander Butmanov, an investment analyst, made a toast and said: “Dear stock market, you were close to us, you were interesting. Rest in peace, dear comrade.”
Some Russians drove to the border with bags of money this week.
But if the goal of sanctions is to force Putin to end his war, the end point seems a long way off.
“The Russian political system does not depend on popular approval. That’s important, but it’s not the most important,” said Ms. Snegovaya. “It may depend on the scale of the crisis – if we see a lot of protests in the streets, the Kremlin might think twice.”