White House struggles to increase pressure on Russia as options dwindle

White House struggles to increase pressure on Russia as options dwindle

When President Joe Biden and aides teased that a new tranche of sanctions against Russia would be announced Friday, the implication was that it was partly in response to the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

In reality, the package has long been in the works, timed to mark the two-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine, according to three officials familiar with the process. On Wednesday, there were still discussions on whether more sanctions could be added, but it appeared that expanding the package could not easily be done in a matter of days, according to one of the officials. All three were granted anonymity to speak publicly about private deliberations.

Biden, after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a 2021 summit, had promised “devastating” consequences for Russia if the imprisoned opposition leader were to die. But nearly three years later, the Biden administration is increasingly aware it has few satisfying, quick options to punish Moscow for Navalny’s death.

Biden squarely blamed Putin for Navalny’s demise. On Tuesday, he promised that a package of “major sanctions” against Moscow would be unveiled at the end of this week.

The administration is considering three main options, two economic and one military, according to the three officials. The U.S. could add more sanctions on Russia as well as shut down the ways Moscow evades current penalties — for example, by stopping sensitive technologies from powering key parts of Russian industry. Both methods would further hurt the Kremlin’s ability to wage the war in Ukraine.

The other idea is to pump Ukraine full of more advanced weaponry, turning Kyiv’s forces into a more powerful entity that Russia would struggle to defeat.

There are also more aggressive and complicated moves under consideration, the three officials said. The U.S. could curb Russia’s oil exports — including to America’s friends like India and adversaries like China — and seize frozen Russian assets to eventually rebuild Ukraine. Those were unlikely to be part of the most imminent moves, the officials said.

But it was unclear if any of those penalties imposed on Putin’s regime would reach the bar Biden promised at the 2021 summit in Geneva, mainly because the U.S. had largely exhausted its toolkit of penalties after Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago this week.

“We’ve got so many in place, it’d be hard to find some, but we’ll ratchet them up — and should,” Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. But Risch acknowledged that there wasn’t much more pressure the U.S. could impose.

The White House’s larger focus remains pushing House Republicans to advance a $95 billion Senate-approved supplemental funding measure that includes additional military aid for Ukraine, according to the three officials.

Further delays, the administration has argued, will only continue to weaken Ukraine’s position on the battlefield. After retaking some of the territory Russia initially seized after its invasion two years ago, the conflict has bogged down over the past 12 months. Ukraine is in strong defensive positions across the country’s eastern flank, but as arms supplies dwindle, Russia is gaining ground.

Ukraine’s withdrawal Saturday from the city of Avdiivka brought the growing precariousness of the situation into starker relief. And recent declarations by former President Donald Trump, the GOP presidential frontrunner who urged Russia to expand its invasion into any NATO country that didn’t spend enough on its defenses, has only rattled Kyiv further.

“Ukraine really never succeeded in significantly punching through the miles of defensive fortifications — tank traps, minefields — that the Russians had time to build up. And as a consequence, even if Russia can stay the course, I don’t think Ukraine can,” said Charles A. Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Inside the administration, however, some disagree with the view that time is on Putin’s side. Although cracks in the West’s resolve to back Ukraine could weaken Ukraine over time, the significant impact of economic sanctions on Russia’s economy also has the potential to ensure Moscow pays a greater price the longer the conflict drags on.

In the coming weeks, House Republicans may consider a separate package from the bill that cleared the Senate last week. The initial proposal from Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) may include less defense aid for Ukraine and does not include economic or humanitarian funds. That’s a frustration for the administration, but Biden is likely to sign whatever Ukraine aid legislation makes it to his desk, according to two of the three officials.

Russia has successfully evaded existing U.S. sanctions and gained military strength by buying weapons — including those used in the Ukraine war — from Iran and North Korea. Despite recent reporting indicating 400 surface-to-surface missiles had arrived in Russia from Iran, one of the U.S. officials said the administration had seen no clear evidence of such a transfer.

There is appetite in Congress, including from Biden’s own party, to hit Russia harder.

“The provocation of the death of Navalny, it’s a very strong view that this creates an opportunity and a justification to do more,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) in an interview at Munich, “whether that is trying to impede more effectively the Russian oil exports, or be more aggressive with the sanctions and seizures, or provide, particular munitions that can do particular missions and disrupt Russian expectations about what’s safe in Crimea and near Crimea.”

The Biden administration is already leaning toward providing long-range Army Tactical Missile Systems that travel further than the older version the U.S. already shipped to Ukraine. That would reverse Biden’s position that sending the weapon would escalate the war and tempt officials in Kyiv to target deep into sovereign Russian territory. The administration has hinted to lawmakers that this type of ATACMS, which pro-Kyiv Republicans have long wanted in Ukrainian hands, would feature in the first tranche of military aid after $60 billion in support is authorized by Congress.

Democrats and Republicans are also nudging the U.S. to seize approximately $300 billion in Russian funds around the world and use them toward rebuilding Ukraine. The REPO Act, backed by Risch and Whitehouse, would greenlight such a move.

But the process is legally tricky and most of Russia’s assets are in Europe. Many European nations fear the slippery-slope aspect of taking items from another nation over a policy disagreement. But they say passing the bill would signal to European allies and partners in the G7 to take the idea seriously, potentially kickstarting serious negotiations on how to pursue the repossession and transfer policy.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan, in previewing the U.S. response, said it would build on existing penalties and be “another turn of the crank” to increase pressure on Moscow.

“It will be a substantial package covering a range of different elements of the Russian defense industrial base,” Sullivan said Tuesday, “and sources of revenue for the Russian economy that power Russia’s war machine, that power Russia’s aggression and that power Russia’s repression. So we believe it will have an impact.”

The U.S. has already sanctioned scores of senior Russian officials, oligarchs, military entities, defense firms and other companies that contributed to Putin’s invasion. After Russian tanks stormed into Ukraine two years ago, Europe imposed sanctions on Russia at a far faster clip than even the U.S. expected.

The U.S. ran through its list of reprimands, which had been prepared over months, after just a week, causing U.S. officials to scramble for more ways to hurt Russia and keep pace with allies across the Atlantic.

As frustrations over the congressional funding delay mount, administration officials looked to underscore the importance of the aid that’s already been sent, pushing back on the suggestion from some Republicans that the money the U.S. and allies have contributed to Ukraine’s defense has been wasted because the war has been at a stalemate for so long.

Not only has Russia’s military and economy borne the brunt of a lengthy conflict the Kremlin failed to anticipate, Ukraine’s military has succeeded in expelling Russia’s navy from the Black Sea, destroying numerous Russian vessels with drones and underwater strikes and ensuring that grain exports continue to flow, lessening the impact on trade and global food supplies.

Additionally, officials have begun to attack GOP claims that U.S. aid amounts to transferring money to Kyiv, noting that, in reality, the legislation allows the Pentagon to transfer existing weapons to Ukraine and to use the new funding to replenish stockpiles, an economic boon for American manufacturers in dozens of states.

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