EXPLAINER: A look at US steps taken, and not, against Russia
U.S. President Joe Biden hit Russia with some of the broadest and toughest financial penalties that the world’s biggest economy can muster on Thursday, hours after President Vladimir Putin launched his military’s invasion of Ukraine.
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The U.S. sanctions and penalties announced so far appear to spare Putin himself from sanctions. They also forgo an option long-cited as one of the toughest possible, by holding off from banning Russia from the SWIFT financial system that moves money around the world. Biden cited concerns by European allies.
But the steps the United States took Thursday are powerful ones regardless, aimed at crippling Russia’s financial system, its elites and any hopes Russia has of economic growth. Here’s a look at the retaliatory financial steps the U.S. announced for Russia’s biggest state-owned banks and businesses, its industry, its economy and some of its most powerful people, as well as key measures that the U.S. is still holding off on.
CUTTING RUSSIAN BANKS OFF FROM THE U.S. DOLLAR
Thursday’s sanctions target big Russian banks holding nearly 80% of all the country’s banking assets, the Treasury Department said.
That includes Russia’s two biggest: state-owned SberBank and VTB. Combined, they hold almost $750 billion in assets, the U.S. said, which is more than half of the entire total in Russia.
Thursday’s sanctions on the banks wield the unique power the U.S. has through the dollar, the currency of choice in business transactions around the world.
The targeted banks normally do tens of billions of dollars in business in dollars daily. The U.S. is now cutting them off from the U.S. financial system and U.S. dollar. The aim is to make the most ordinary business matters as well as international trade far more difficult for the banks, and Russia.
Other U.S. measures target key state-owned and private businesses in Russia, aiming to make it harder for them to raise money to invest and operate.
The U.S. also went after more of Russia’s elites, sanctioning bankers and other powerful associates of Putin in Russia’s top financial, political and security circles.
STARVING RUSSIA’S BUSINESSES, MILITARY OF U.S. HIGH-TECH
Export controls announced by the Biden administration feature another especially strong piece of leverage the U.S. holds — America’s semiconductors and other advanced high-tech gear.
Biden said new U.S. export limits will deprive Russia of more than half of its current high-tech supply. It will “strike a blow” to Russia’s aims to modernize its military, its vaunted aerospace industry, its space program, shipping and other industry, he declared.
By “reducing their ability to compete economically,” the high-tech limits will be a “major hit to long-term strategic ambitions,” Biden said.
U.S. export controls are expected to deprive Russian industries and the military of the high-tech U.S. components that help warplanes and passenger jets fly and make smartphones smart, along with other software and advanced electronic gear that make the modern world run.
The U.S. said the European Union, Japan, Britain and other countries were also cooperating in the move to starve Russia of high-tech components.
The U.S. response could add Russia to the most restrictive group of countries for export control purposes, joining Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria.
They limit Russia’s ability to obtain integrated circuits and products containing integrated circuits, due to the global dominance of U.S. software, technology and equipment. The impact could extend to aircraft avionics, machine tools, smartphones, game consoles, tablets and televisions.
However, U.S. export restrictions would risk motivating businesses to look for alternatives elsewhere, including China.
STEPS THE U.S. DIDN’T TAKE — OR HASN’T YET
Biden says the sanctions against Russia were tailored not to disrupt the global oil and natural gas markets. That’s at a time when time petroleum supply and high prices are making it tough for governments and consumers around the world. The Biden administration itself is under political pressure over rising oil and gas prices.
“Our sanctions package is specifically designed to allow energy payments to continue,” Biden said in his White House address Thursday.
Russia is one of the world’s top oil and gas exporters. Germany and other allies are heavily dependent on its shipments, despite the strong progress some are making in moving away from fossil fuels. The Biden administration has stressed the care it is taking to minimize sanctions’ impact on those allies.
Biden also cited European concerns for the U.S. decision to keep holding off on proposals to ban Russia from the SWIFT financial system, which moves money bank-to-bank around the world.
Leaders of Germany, with its numerous business ties to Russia, had publicly expressed skepticism about banning SWIFT.
Biden told reporters Thursday his banking sanctions will hit Russia even harder than a SWIFT ban would. Some financial experts agree, and say the banking sanctions could also be less disruptive to global financial systems than wrenching Russia out of the SWIFT system would be.
And Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen made clear the U.S. could still levy some punishments that it’s currently holding in reserve.
The individual sanctions announced by the United States also spared the prime mover in a Russian invasion that has shaken the security networks of Europe and the world — Putin himself. Individual European sanctions also appear to spare Putin.
U.S. and European officials didn’t immediately explain their reasoning in that. Biden has expressed reluctance about sanctioning heads of state in the past. Concern that targeting Putin’s wealth and family directly might cut off all hope of diplomatic resolution also may have played a part.
But when asked by reporters to explain that step not taken Thursday, Biden pointedly refused to answer.