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Biden's first round of sanctions invites calls for more aggressive measures

New sanctions imposed against Russia
U.S. and allies impose new sanctions on Russia as tensions escalate in Eastern Europe 03:57

Washington — Sanctions rolled out by the Biden administration this week that aim to deter further aggression by Russian President Vladimir Putin against Ukraine stop short of penalties that will hamstring Russia's economy, experts say, and instead leave room for harsher measures.

The U.S. and Western allies have made clear the sanctions they've imposed thus far are just an initial response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's recognition of two regions in eastern Ukraine as independent and ordering of so-called "peacekeeping" forces to the breakaway republics. But if Putin escalates further, Western leaders are poised to impose more severe penalties on Russia, they've stressed. 

"If you look at where the U.S. is on the sanctions escalation ladder, it's on rung three of 10 right now," said Chris Miller, an assistant professor at the Fletcher School of Tufts University and co-director of its Russia and Eurasia Program.

When comparing the economic measures the U.S. has imposed on Russia thus far with penalties targeting Iran, Miller said "we're nowhere close to Iran-style sanctions."

In 2018, Mr. Biden's predecessor, former President Trump, withdrew from the nuclear agreement with Iran and reimposed sanctions in an effort to force Iran to renegotiate the nuclear accord. The Congressional Research Service noted that the restored sanctions, plus some new ones, "caused Iran's economy to fall into recession as its sales of oil declined and Iran was again largely cut off from the international financial system." 

The economic sanctions announced by Mr. Biden on Tuesday against Moscow are limited, targeting a pair of Russian banks, VEB and Promsvyazbank, and five Russian oligarchs with ties to the Kremlin and Putin. The U.S. also imposed additional restrictions on Russia's sovereign debt, a move intended to cut Russia off from Western financing. On Wednesday, the president announced his administration will be sanctioning Nord Stream 2 AG, the company building the gas pipeline, and its corporate officers.

"Through his actions, President Putin has provided the world with an overwhelming incentive to move away from Russian gas and to other forms of energy," Mr. Biden said in a statement.

The first set of sanctions from the U.S. were rolled out alongside economic measures from the European Union and the United Kingdom, which also targeted Russian banks and oligarchs. A sanctions package approved by the EU on Tuesday also hits 351 members of the Russian Duma who voted to recognize the Luhansk and Donetsk regions as independent, while Germany took steps to halt certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, limiting Russia's future access to Europe's energy markets. 

Unity among the U.S. and its allies with respect to its response to Russia is a "good thing," Miller said, "but we shouldn't mistake it for efficacy."

"Will this deter Russia from doing more?" he said of the sanctions. "I hope the answer is yes, but I'm fearful that the answer is no. If you want to think about sanctions as a deterrent, you have to think about what price would the Kremlin be willing to pay to achieve its goal?"

If the policy goal is control of Ukraine, Miller continued, sanctions that impose costs of several billion dollars "might be a reasonable price to pay" for Putin.

A European official told CBS News' chief foreign affairs correspondent and "Face the Nation" moderator Margaret Brennan that the assessment of the sanctions leveraged against Russia so far is that they are "symbolically important," as they show unity between the U.S. and EU, which acted in coordinated fashion. The practical impact, though, is "very limited," since Russia does not need to borrow money from the West. 

A second European official from a U.S.-allied country essentially concurred, telling Brennan that the sovereign debt sanctions are important, but also limited in impact because Russia is flush with cash. These officials described the sanctions as "moderate." 

On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats alike urged the White House to levy the more stringent penalties against Russia.

GOP Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska said the opening salvo from the White House is "too little, too late," and  characterized the sanctions as "incremental." 

"First, these sanctions should have happened before Putin further invaded Ukraine, not after," he said in a statement. "Second, economic sanctions now need to more aggressively target Putin's oligarchs to make sure they feel real pain. Third, we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that today's incremental sanctions will deter Putin from trying to install a puppet government in Kyiv."

Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, applauded the president's decision to sanction the company building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and pushed the Biden administration to "continue imposing strong consequences" on Russia.

"Putin just lost a big tool of Russian malign influence in Europe," Menendez tweeted. "The world isn't fooled by Putin's propaganda & we are united against this attack on Ukraine."

The White House has not divulged specific details of the next batch of economic measures readied by the U.S. and Western allies, but White House press secretary Jen Paski told reporters Tuesday that the U.S. has "a range of options that remain on the table that would have a significant and devastating impact on the Russian economy."

Those options, she said, include export control restrictions and the removal of Russia from the SWIFT system, a network used by banks and financial institutions to process transactions around the world.

Daleep Singh, deputy national security adviser, also previewed Tuesday that "no Russian financial institution is safe" if there is an invasion.

"We are ready to press a button to take action on the two largest Russian financial institutions, which collectively hold almost $750 billion in assets, or more than half of the total in the Russian banking system," he said, which appeared to be a reference to Sberbank and VTB.

Miller noted that thus far, no Russian bank of "meaningful size" has been cut off from the international financial system, though placing the Russian financial institutions on the Treasury Department's "Specially Designated Nationals" list, after which entities worldwide would stop doing business with them, would inflict significant economic harm.

Export control restrictions, particularly on semiconductor technology, would also be a powerful tool by making it difficult for Russia to buy manufactured goods from abroad, as well as restrictions on Russian energy or commodity exports.

"The reality is we're in a seriously escalating crisis with Russia," Miller said, "so things that seem inconceivable today might seem plausible in a couple months time."

Michael O'Hanlon, director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told CBS News in an email he, too, favors "much stronger energy sanctions" in the event Russia starts a war with Ukraine. Still, he said the new sanctions from the Biden administration will "bite."

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