Sanctions don’t do much until they target Putin’s oil

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Friday afternoon news dumps are always revealing, and that includes last week’s Treasury Department clarification of US sanctions on Russian banks. Don’t buy the Biden administration’s line that it’s pulling out the stops against Russia. 

The president continues to insist he’s “enforcing the most significant package of economic sanctions in history” against Vladimir Putin’s regime. Some Biden loyalists are even veering toward hagiography. Connecticut’s Chris Murphy bragged last week on the Senate floor that Mr. Biden’s “stunning” diplomacy had produced “a sanctions package that is sweeping, that is unprecedented, that is breaking the back of the Russian economy.” The press nods along. 

The reality is far different, which accounts for rising frustration in Congress — and growing divisions between even Democrats and the White House. The administration refused to impose sanctions in the lead-up to Mr. Putin’s invasion, naively trusting diplomacy. Yet even after Russian tanks rolled — and despite having months to prepare — the response has been slow, timid, hostage to feel-good “multilateralism” and unwilling to attack the real engine of the Russian economy: energy. Even the president’s own party is losing patience with his inadequate sanctions. 

President Joe Biden speaks at the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference.
President Biden speaks at the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference.
Patrick Semansky/AP

Consider that Treasury announcement. In late February Mr. Biden grandly announced sanctions targeting Russian banks. Yet on Friday, Treasury quietly clarified that the sanctions won’t apply to the banks’ energy transactions until June 24 — meaning Wall Street can continue to trade in Russian oil and gas. “The energy sector of the Russian Federation economy itself is not subject to comprehensive sanctions,” explained Treasury’s Web site, a scandalous caveat the media largely ignored. 

Sen. Rob Portman on Tuesday asked Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland to justify the decision to give the Russian energy sector a pass for four months. She explained that working “multilaterally” remained the top priority, so “we did agree to a phase-in” at the behest of energy-dependent “European allies.” 

Mr. Biden this week belatedly announced a ban on Russian oil and gas — but only because congressional Democrats and Republicans were uniting to pass legislation forcing his hand. Even Speaker Nancy Pelosi supported the ban and reportedly refused to agree to a White House demand to drop it. The Biden team scrambled to get ahead of Congress by announcing the embargo itself. 

Map of the Ukraine war as of March 11, 2022.

The White House has also demanded congressional Democrats stand down on a bipartisan bill that would suspend Russia’s preferential trading status with the US — again, seemingly in order to discuss it to death with Europe. The good news is that lawmakers in both parties said late this week that they remain undeterred and may pass the trade restriction next week — potentially forcing Mr. Biden’s hand again. 

The White House is nonetheless getting its way when it comes to blocking a Republican bill from Sen. Jim Risch that would impose real sanctions on Russia’s oil, gas, mining and mineral sectors. It targets oligarchs. It would create a lend-lease program to ensure Ukraine will continue to get necessary military resources. Crucially, it provides for “secondary sanctions” against global institutions that finance the Russian economy. As Mr. Risch notes, these secondary sanctions would “force the world’s financial institutions to make a choice between Russia and Western markets” and finally “isolate” the Russian economy. 

The White House is resisting all this for the same reason it resisted the Russian oil embargo. Truly punishing sanctions against Russia’s energy sector are still anathema to Old Europe allies who want to continue importing Russian oil. The administration also fears that seriously targeting Russian energy would further drive up gasoline prices, hurting Mr. Biden domestically. Senate Foreign Relation Chairman Bob Menendez was, before the invasion, working with Mr. Risch on a bipartisan bill. At the behest of the White House, he went AWOL, and Democrats last week blocked a vote on the Risch legislation. 

It’s time to lead by example 

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine February 24, 2022.
Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

Republicans note that for all the talk of multilateralism, the US is woefully trailing Europe in other areas. Since February the European Union has imposed sanctions on at least 12 oligarchs among the Navalny 35, a list of key Putin abetters compiled by dissident Alexei Navalny’s organization. The UK has targeted nine of them since February; the US, zero. Yes, Washington has targeted a handful of Putin cronies, but it’s only a sliver of the hundreds of oligarchs who hold Russia’s wealth. It did, however, announce a “task force” to investigate oligarch behavior. Twenty-two years into the Putin regime, the US government doesn’t have that information? 

The Biden team will argue that sanctions work best in conjunction with allies. No doubt. But the way to get the world to join in truly punishing and isolating Mr. Putin is to lead by example and to invite or shame allies into joining the fight. It’s not the current approach, which is to yammer in the halls of Foggy Bottom and settle for the path of least resistance. Mr. Biden can talk all he wants about his plans to cripple Mr. Putin’s economy. He has yet to take the steps that might actually do it. 

From The Wall Street Journal. 



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