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Will Biden's Russia Sanctions Actually Cease Putin?

Russia can't seem to stop pissing off the United States and its friends. Over the past year, the Kremlin has crept into the computer systems of the US government and Fortune 500 companies, interfered in the 2020 elections, and amassed a large force on the Ukrainian border.

As punishment, President Joe Biden announced on Thursday a series of measures aimed, as the White House put it, "defending our national interests and charging the costs of actions by the Russian government intended to cause us harm".

These measures include sanctioning six Russian technology companies that support the Russian secret service's cyber program. 32 companies and individuals involved in electoral influence and disinformation campaigns; Limits of the financial interaction of the USA with Russia's national debt; and, in coordination with the allies, eight people "associated" with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The US has also expelled 10 diplomats from the Moscow embassy in Washington, DC, and officially accused the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) of hacking SolarWinds software to spy on American officials and companies.

The US has certainly taken or will take covert action as well. Last week, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki reiterated the government's message that Russia "would suffer consequences, some invisible and others seen" for its many aggressions. It's unclear what this could be, but experts believe that a cyberattack is the most likely.

Either way you look at it, this is a significant decision by Biden that most analysts say will cause real pain to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies. "This is definitely the largest sanctions measure against Russia since the Ukraine crisis began in 2014," said Edward Fishman, a former State Department sanctions officer.

The real question, however, is not whether Russia will suffer financially from these measures, but whether they will force Putin to end his aggression against the US and her friends.

The consensus among Democrats, Republicans, and current and former US government officials I spoke to: They will not do it.

"These sanctions are criminal and will harm the Russian economy, but they do not encourage better behavior," said Angela Stent, who served as US intelligence officer for Russia from 2004 to 2006.

After addressing his actions in Russia later that day, a reporter asked if Putin was giving hello, an indication that he would change his behavior. Biden did not say "yes" but said in conversations "I asked him to react appropriately, not to exceed, because we can move too."

This does not mean that the measures are error-free. Biden may have found a bigger strategic reason to hold back: to make it clear to Putin that if he continues to threaten America and his friends – namely Ukraine – he will face worse penalties. Much worse.

Biden's Russia penalties are huge. He could have gotten bigger.

Top Democrats clearly want the White House to go further than Putin.

Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, separately called the sanctions and deportation package a “first step”.

An adviser to the Democratic Congress summed up the general feeling in the party as follows: "This has been quite a slap in the face (for Russia), but we need a combination."

They believe the US could have done a lot more to inflict real pain on Putin and Russia.

Tim Morrison, who served as President Donald Trump's senior official on the National Security Council for Europe, has some ideas.

Biden could have sanctioned companies building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany. Moscow sees an opportunity to earn money in the 95 percent completed pipeline and an urgently needed energy supply system in Berlin. But Washington, under both Trump and Biden, views the pipeline as a bare effort by the Kremlin to expand its hold in the heart of Europe.

If the US had sanctioned the many companies involved in the construction according to the guidelines of Congress, it would be a severe blow to Putin. "Kill it," Morrison told me. "Kill it now." However, the Biden administration intends to appoint a special envoy for Nord Stream 2 to ensure that the pipeline is never completed.

Biden was asked why he did not impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2 during his address on Thursday afternoon. It is "a complex problem that affects our allies in Europe," replied the president, adding, "it is still an issue that is at stake."

Morrison, who now works at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, DC, also said Biden should have closed all five Russian consulates in the United States.

These tougher actions would show Putin that the US was really serious about stopping him.

"We hold things back. We shouldn't hold things back. Putin will perceive it for what it is: dubious," Morrison told me. Putin is "a dime store magician, not a strategic genius, but he can People read. That's why he's still alive. "

That Biden hasn't gone as far as he could have been means that Putin is unlikely to stop the cyber espionage, election disruptions, and other actions that have put him on America's bad side.

The recent measures "are unlikely to change Putin's calculations fundamentally," said John Sipher, who previously headed the CIA's Russia operations. "Putin will continue to use asymmetrical means to harm the West, and he has the tools and experience to weather the domestic economic or political damage caused by the sanctions."

But why not do everything Morrison ordered and see if that would work? Experts tell me that Biden believes he can make Putin hesitate before approving the worst acts.

A "sword of Damocles" now hangs over Putin

Fishman, the former U.S. sanctions officer who now works at the Atlantic Council think tank in DC, stated that the sanctions and penalties you don't apply can sometimes be more effective than what you do.

"Sanctions are most effective as a threat before they are imposed to deter future action by another government," he told me. "What Biden shows is that he won't hold back when it comes to sanctions against Russia, but he has more arrows in his quiver."

In other words, Putin not only has to deal with the consequences of these penalties, he also has to worry about future reprimands should he take Biden too far.

This "sword of Damocles," as Fishman called it, is very useful right now. Russia has tens of thousands of troops and a tank convoy near the Ukrainian border. The concern is that Putin could prepare for another invasion of the country to bolster the Kremlin forces that have been fighting in Ukraine since 2014.

Such a possibility certainly weighs on Biden's thoughts. Speaking to Putin on Tuesday, Biden underlined "the unwavering commitment of the United States to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine", according to a reading by the White House. "The President expressed our concern about the sudden build-up of the Russian military in occupied Crimea and on the borders of Ukraine and urged Russia to ease tensions."

If Biden had used up all the sanctions and diplomatic options available to him, Putin might still have invaded Ukraine because he had no further steps to fear, experts said. There is always the possibility that Biden will approve direct military action or push for Ukraine to join NATO, but experts believe that would go too far – and Putin knows that.

Keeping Biden more options in the holster was the right move for now.

"Everything Putin has done deserves tougher sanctions," said Evelyn Farkas, a former top Pentagon official for Russia in the Obama administration. "But when we talk about ongoing foreign policy and diplomacy, that makes sense to me."

There are more that Biden is trying to communicate with these measures, said Sipher, the former CIA agent. "These efforts have a symbolic effect, as they make it clear that the new administration will focus on the Kremlin's evil behavior, and Putin must assume that the Biden administration will consider future and greater setbacks."

Overall, it is unlikely that Putin will ever stop weakening the US wherever he can, regardless of what the US is doing to him, his cronies or his country. But if the Biden administration can at least prevent Putin from doing the worst – like a major invasion of a US partner nation in Europe – then this and the threat of further penalties would prove successful.

"These new sanctions are pretty mind-boggling," said Farkas.

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