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Biden’s bind: No good options on Russia

Analysis: The risk for the president, at a time when his approval ratings have cratered, is that he will be seen as powerless if his sanctions don’t alter Putin’s behavior.

President Joe Biden brought his pen to a war. Now, he has to hope it will prove mightier than Russian resolve.

After a first round of international sanctions failed to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from launching an invasion of Ukraine, Biden announced Thursday that he was signing a second round. The new sanctions, Biden said, will impose a heavy cost on Russia while limiting collateral economic damage to the American public.

The prospect of domestic pain is just one of the constraints binding Biden as he hears calls from Republicans, some fellow Democrats and activists to take a harder line against Putin.

There has been little will among NATO countries — including the U.S. — to make major sacrifices to defend Ukraine. For example, Biden has ruled out sending U.S. troops to fight Russia in Ukraine, and he said Thursday that Russia hasn’t been banished from SWIFT, a crucial global financial network, because "right now, that’s not the position the rest of Europe wants to take."

The risk for Biden, at a time when his approval ratings have cratered, is that he will be seen as powerless if his sanctions don't alter Putin's behavior. And while many national security experts in both parties say Biden hasn’t done enough, it’s not clear that there’s any action he could take — short of war — that would turn Russian forces around.

Evelyn Farkas, who was deputy assistant defense secretary for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia in the Obama administration, said Thursday's sanctions "won't change a thing" Putin's doing.

Part of the problem for Biden is that America's NATO partners won't agree to the sanctions U.S. lawmakers are demanding, many of which — including kicking Russia out of the SWIFT system — would require international cooperation to be effective. Still, there's little sympathy for the idea that a president's power is limited.

K.T. McFarland, who was deputy national security adviser for President Donald Trump, said Biden should be doing more to drive down the price of Russian oil.

"You can’t just keep slapping them on the wrist," McFarland said Thursday at a session at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida. "You’ve got to hit them where it hurts."

Likewise, a chorus of lawmakers from across the political spectrum called for more severe sanctions. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., voiced that view in no uncertain terms.

"As we seek to impose maximum costs on Putin, there is more that we can and should do," he said in a statement. "Congress and the Biden administration must not shy away from any options — including sanctioning the Russian Central Bank, removing Russian banks from the SWIFT payment system, crippling Russia’s key industries, sanctioning Putin personally, and taking all steps to deprive Putin and his inner circle of their assets.”

But the administration stressed Thursday that it believed in a more deliberative, methodical approach.

“When we consider which sanctions to apply, we’re not cowboys and cowgirls, pressing a button to impose costs,” deputy national security adviser Daleep Singh told reporters at a White House briefing. “We follow a set of principles.”

Furthermore, the administration has been careful not to outstep its European allies; instead, it sent a consistent message that any response to Putin would be unified. In his remarks, Biden underscored that Putin's ultimate goal was to divide the West and splinter NATO, and what was important, he said, was that the West stood firm together.

Some experts defended the sanctions Biden imposed Thursday.

"The measures significantly ratchet up restrictions on Russia in a way that will put long-term pressure on its biggest financial institutions and attempts to modernize its tech sector," said David Mortlock, a sanctions expert who worked on the National Security Council staff during the Obama administration.

"The restrictions on Russian banks are in many ways more severe than 'de-SWIFT-ing,' because they won't just bar the Russian banks from messaging other banks but will generally prohibit U.S. banks from dealing with their Russian counterparts at all," he said.

Daniel Rothkopf, who was a senior trade official in the Clinton administration, said the Biden administration is moving forward with persuading its fellow allies to take more severe actions. The sanctions imposed Thursday, he said, were "the best deal that was available to them, and it’s a deal that is very significant."

"Everybody, at a moment like this, wants to appear as tough as they can be," Rothkopf said. "Menendez is right. It would be nicer to do more sanctions. But do you think for a moment that they didn't do every sanction they could? I think they have taken every step that was available to them as a member and as the leader of the alliance."