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White House Weighs How Hard to Hit Putin With Sanctions

todayFebruary 22, 2022 1

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The Biden administration said it is still debating on Tuesday morning what package of sanctions to unleash against Vladimir V. Putin, his friends and Russia’s financial system. But all the early indications suggested that officials planned to leave some in reserve in hopes of preventing a far larger attack on Ukraine that could cause tens of thousands of casualties.

Early Tuesday morning, Jon Finer, Mr. Biden’s deputy national security adviser, said that Russia’s forces had begun to move into Ukraine, declaring on CNN that “an invasion is an invasion, and that is what is underway.”

But he quickly indicated that the administration could hold back some of its promised punishments in the hopes of deterring further, far more violent aggression by Mr. Putin aimed at taking the rest of the country.

“We’ve always envisioned waves of sanctions that would unfold over time in response to steps Russia actually takes not just statements that they make,” Mr. Finer said. “We’ve always said we’re going to watch the situation on the ground and have a swift and severe response.”

Overnight, Mr. Biden and his aides were consulting with allies, so that their response would be coordinated. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson pointed toward the direction they were leaning when he told Parliament on Tuesday that “this is the first tranche, the first barrage of what we are prepared to do and we hold further sanctions at readiness to be deployed along side the United States and European Union if the situation escalates still further.”

It is one of those situations where Mr. Biden has no truly good choices. If his response seems too mild, he will send the message to Mr. Putin that the world is not going to make him pay a big price for sending troops into the Russian-speaking eastern part of the country — replicating what happened when the Russian leader annexed Crimea in 2014. If he implements all of the sanctions, Mr. Putin may conclude that there is nothing left to keep him from attacking the rest of the country.

Mr. Biden discussed this dilemma at a news conference in January. He said that if an attack was “something significantly short of a significant invasion” he would impose sanctions, but only to the point that European allies go along. And several of those allies have more at stake, including their gas supplies. “I got to make sure everybody is on the same page as we move along,’’ Mr. Biden said.

That was the news conference where he used the phrase “minor incursions,” and then had to backtrack, promising sanctions if one Russian soldier goes into Ukraine. But his words were revealing about how he thinks about the problem. If “there’s Russian forces crossing the border, killing Ukrainian fighter, et cetera — I think that changes everything.”

Mr. Biden also said during that news conference that “the most important thing to do: Big nations can’t bluff,” a phrase that now leaves him open to criticism after saying for weeks that even one soldier crossing the border into Ukraine would trigger an entire barrage of sanctions against Russia.

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todayFebruary 22, 2022 1