With Sanctions, US and Europe Aim to Punish Putin and Fuel Russian Unrest

WASHINGTON — As they impose historic sanctions on Russia, the Biden administration and European governments have set new goals: devastate the Russian economy as punishment for the world to witness, and create domestic pressure on President Vladimir V. Putin to halt his war in Ukraine, current and former US officials say.

The harsh penalties — which have hammered the ruble, shut down Russia’s stock market and prompted bank runs — contradict previous declarations by US officials that they would refrain from inflicting pain on ordinary Russians. “We target them carefully to avoid even the appearance of targeting the average Russian civilian,” Daleep Singh, the deputy national security adviser for international economics, said at a White House briefing last month.

The escalation in sanctions this week has occurred much faster than many officials had anticipated, largely because European leaders have embraced the most aggressive measures proposed by Washington, US officials said.

With Russia’s economy crumbling, major companies—Apple, Boeing and Shell among them—are suspending or exiting operations in the country. The Biden administration said on Thursday that it would not offer sanctions relief amid Mr. Putin’s increasingly brutal offensive.

The thinking among some US and European officials is that Mr. Putin might stop 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 that the carcass of the Russian economy will serve as a visible consequence of Mr. Putin’s actions and a warning for other aggressors.

But Russia’s $1.5 trillion economy is the world’s 11th largest. No countries have tried pushing 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 type of great-power conflict in the future.

The moves have also ignited questions in Washington and in European capitals over whether cascading events in Russia could lead to “regime change,” or rulership collapse, which President Biden and European leaders are careful to avoid mentioning.

“This isn’t the Russian people’s war,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in a news conference on Wednesday. But, he added, “the Russian people will suffer the consequences of their leaders’ choices.”

“The economic costs that we’ve been forced to impose on Russia are not aimed at you,” he said. “They are aimed at compelling your government to stop its actions, to stop its aggression.”

The harshest sanctions by far are ones that prevent the Central Bank of Russia from tapping into much of its $643 billion in foreign currency reserves, which has led to a steep drop in the value of the ruble. Panic has set in across Russia. Citizens are scrambling 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 are moving to sixteen their houses, yachts and private jets around the world. French officials on Thursday snatched the giant yacht 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 scholar at George Washington University who has studied US sanctions on Russia. “Everybody in Russia is horrified. They’re trying to think of the best way to preserve their money.”

The French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, has used some of the harshest language yet to articulate the mission, telling a radio program on Tuesday that Western nations were “waging an all-out economic and financial war on Russia” to “cause the collapse of the Russian economy.” He later said he regretted his words.

Evidence of shock and anger among Russians—mostly anecdotal in a country with restricted speech and little public opinion polling—has raised the specter of mass political dissent, which, if strong enough, could threaten Mr. Putin’s grip on power.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said on Fox News, “The best way for this to end is having Eliot Ness or Wyatt Earp in Russia, the Russian Spring, so to speak, where people rise up and take him down.”

Mr. Graham added: “So I’m hoping somebody in Russia will understand that he’s destroying Russia, and you need to take this guy out by any means possible,” reiterating his Twitter post on Thursday calling for an assassination of Mr. Putin.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain said on Monday that the sanctions were “intended to bring down the Putin regime.” Mr. Johnson’s office quickly corrected the statement, saying that it did not reflect his government’s view and that the goal of the measures was to stop Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

Michael A. McFaul, a former US ambassador to Moscow, called the talk of Mr. Putin’s overthrow unhelpful, emphasizing that the sanctions should be tailored and described as a means of stopping the invasion. “The objective 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 reverse any of the sanctions in exchange for de-escalation.

“Right in this moment, they’re marching toward Kyiv with a convoy and continuing to take reportedly barbaric steps against the people of Ukraine,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Thursday. “So, no, now is not the moment where we are offering options for reducing sanctions.”

But in an interview on Friday with the Russian news agency TASS, Victoria J. Nuland, the US under secretary of state for political affairs, suggested terms for possible sanctions relief, albeit maximalist ones. She said that Mr. Putin had to end the war, help to “rebuild” Ukraine and recognize its sovereignty, borders and right to exist. Those are conditions that the Russian leader is highly unlikely to consider.

All the while, Biden officials have sought to assure the Russian people that they take no pleasure in their suffering. The United States and Europe have tried to spare Russians some of the effects, including allowing sales of consumer technology to Russia despite sweeping new limits on exports.

They have also refrained from imposing energy sanctions because of Europe’s dependence on Russian gas and the risk of higher oil prices.

Even so, Mr. Putin and his aides are doing their best to find some political advantage in the sanctions, arguing that the real goal for the West has always been to weaken Russia. As he launched his invasion last week, Mr. Putin said the United States would have sanctioned his country “no matter what.”

In an interview with Al Jazeera on Wednesday, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said that the sanctions were meant to “target regular people” and that the West had cut off cultural exchange programs and even Russian sports teams.

Whatever their precise goal, sanctions have a poor record of persuading governments to change their behavior. The Trump administration’s sanctions on Iran, perhaps the harshest imposed on any country, failed to compel Tehran to stop supporting militias across the Middle East or halt its efforts at uranium enrichment after President Donald J. Trump withdrew from a nuclear agreement. North Korea has pushed forward with a nuclear weapons program despite major sanctions by four American presidents.

The same has largely been true of US sanctions on Syria, Cuba and Venezuela.

On occasion, the US government has achieved modest goals with sanctions. Some analysts and US officials argue that Iran began negotiations on a nuclear agreement after the Obama administration imposed sanctions. Trump administration officials said sanctions helped compel Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, to meet with Mr. Trump (along with Twitter messages and letters between the leaders).

And some former Obama officials, including ones who now serve in the Biden administration, have argued that sanctions on Russia in 2014 helped to deter Mr. Putin from pushing deeper into Ukraine after he annexed Crimea and started a separatist war in the country’s east.

This winter, the Biden administration used the threat of sanctions to try to deter Mr. Putin from invading Ukraine. It warned that the measures would be severe but did not go into details. US officials did not publicly mention the possibility of penalizing Russia’s central bank — the harshest sanction imposed so far — because they were uncertain whether European nations would be on board, a former US official said.

After the United States, Britain and the European Union announced sanctions on the central bank, the ruble plummeted in value on Monday. The bank no longer has access to foreign currency reserves held outside Russia, so it cannot use those assets to buy rubles and prop up its value. The Treasury Department has also imposed sanctions on some Russian state-owned companies that have foreign currency holdings that the central bank could tap.

As its economy trembled, Russia suspended trading on its stock market. On a Russian news program, Alexander Butmanov, an investment analyst, raised a toast and said, “Dear stock market, you were close to us, you were interesting. Rest in peace, dear comrade.”

Some Russians this week were driving to borders with bags of cash.

But if the goal of sanctions is to compel Mr. Putin to halt his war, then the end point seems far-off.

“The Russian political system doesn’t depend on the people’s approval. That matters, but it’s not the most important thing,” Ms. Snegovaya said. “It might depend on the scale of the crisis — if we see lots of protests in the streets, it might make the Kremlin think twice.”

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