Faced with mounting economic costs from sanctions on the Russian government and increasingly explicit nuclear threats from the Kremlin, the Biden administration still believes that a war of attrition is the only way to beat Vladimir Putin.
The newest tranche of sanctions punishing Russia for its illegal annexation of four Ukrainian provinces won’t turn the tide in the war, administration officials said on Friday, but are the safest way to continue backing the Ukrainian resistance without risking direct American involvement.
“The sanctions element of our strategy, the economic pressure that we are placing on Russia, and the denial of their ability to gather what they need to be able to regenerate their war machine, this has been a critical element to how we have prosecuted our strategy so far,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters in the White House briefing room. “The impacts of it will continue to be felt month on month as we go forward and put us in a stronger position, and Russia in a more disadvantaged position.”
Sullivan’s remarks came hours after the Commerce, State and Treasury departments announced new economic, diplomatic and financial actions against Russia and its leadership in response to Putin’s announcement on Friday morning that four Ukrainian provinces are now Russian territory.
“People living in Luhansk and Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are becoming our citizens. Forever,” Putin said in a speech from the Kremlin on Friday morning, naming the four Ukrainian provinces, which make up nearly one-fifth of Ukraine’s territory. The annexation—which is illegal under international law and was met with a range of sanctions, visa restrictions and other economic measures by allied governments around the world—was widely expected by U.S. officials in the months leading up to Putin’s announcement, though the debate over the Biden administration’s response was a matter of internal dispute.
“What is a proportionate response to the illegal seizure of one-fifth of an ally’s territory?” one senior U.S. official told The Daily Beast before a series of sham elections in the occupied provinces that were used to justify Putin’s annexation address. “Russia waited seven years after annexing Crimea to mount another pretext-less invasion of Ukraine—without a proportionate response, whatever that looks like, there is no disincentive to discourage them from another invasion seven years from now.”
In the first hours after the annexation, the administration’s counteroffensive was focused primarily on the economic front: sanctions against the head of Russia’s central bank, more than two hundred members of Russia’s Federal Assembly, and on companies that feed Russia’s military supply chains.
“These sanctions will impose costs on individuals and entities—inside and outside of Russia—that provide political or economic support to illegal attempts to change the status of Ukrainian territory,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “We will rally the international community to both denounce these moves and to hold Russia accountable.”
Despite those measures, the debate over a proportionate response continues, with some senior State Department officials pushing for the U.S. to more aggressively back Ukraine’s bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a proposal Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky has called for and which Sullivan sidestepped.
“The best way for us to support Ukraine is through practical on-the-ground support in Ukraine,” Sullivan said, adding that the question of hastening Ukraine’s entry into NATO’s mutual-defense pact “should be taken up at a different time.”
“That’s a B.S. answer,” one senior U.S. diplomat told The Daily Beast when sent a transcript of Sullivan’s remarks. “There is no more apt time to support fast-tracking NATO membership than when half the country has been stolen.”
The U.S. support for Ukraine’s resistance is not entirely in the form of punitive measures taken against the Kremlin, of course. Earlier this week, the Pentagon announced an additional $1.1 billion in security assistance for the country, which includes artillery rocket systems, armored vehicles, drones and body armor, and Biden on Friday signed a stopgap spending bill that included nearly $12 billion in additional aid for Ukraine.
But while limited military assistance for Ukraine has helped Kyiv make major gains in Eastern Ukraine against Russian forces, one national security official said, the White House and National Security Council are constantly aware that backing Putin into too tight a corner risks provoking increasingly desperate counter-responses.
“There are two apex priorities: 1) support Ukraine’s attempts to expel Russian forces and reclaim its occupied territory; and 2) do not do so in a way that sparks World War III,” the official said. “Those two priorities are not in definitional conflict, but the margin is narrowing.”
One need only look at the apparent sabotage of the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea, the official said, as an indicator of how far Putin may go as the invasion falters and inexperienced Russian conscripts replace tens of thousands of dead soldiers on the front. The pipelines, which were discovered on Monday to have massive leaks of methane gas following underwater explosions, supplied nearly 20 percent of Europe’s natural gas before the invasion.
The threat of continued implausibly deniable sabotage is far from the topmost concern, however. That would be Putin’s increasingly explicit threats of nuclear war in the event that Russian territory—which now includes much of Eastern Ukraine, at least in the Kremlin’s eyes—is threatened.
Biden called the leaks a “deliberate act of sabotage,” although he later hedged on directly blaming the Russian government for an attack on the pipeline. “At the appropriate moment when things calm down, we’re gonna send the divers down to find out exactly what happened.”
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