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With Sanctions, U.S. and Europe Aim to Punish Putin and Fuel Russian Unrest

NYTimes | The Biden administration and European officials are hurting the Russian economy and instilling widespread fear in the Russian people in order to put pressure on President Vladimir V. Putin to halt his war in Ukraine.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — According to current and former US officials, the Biden administration and European governments have set new goals as they impose historic sanctions on Russia: devastate the Russian economy as a punishment for the world to see, and put domestic pressure on President Vladimir V. Putin to end his war in Ukraine.

The punitive sanctions, which have weakened the ruble, shut down Russia's stock market, and sparked bank runs, contradict previous statements by US officials that they would not harm ordinary Russians. At a White House briefing this month, Daleep Singh, the deputy national security advisor for international economy, said, "We target them carefully to prevent even the appearance of attacking the typical Russian civilian."

The escalation of sanctions this week has happened faster than many officials expected, owing to European leaders' endorsement of Washington's most harsh steps, according to US sources.

With Russia's economy collapsing, prominent corporations such as Apple, Boeing, and Shell are halting or ceasing business there. In the face of Mr. Putin's increasingly ruthless attack, the Biden administration indicated on Thursday that it would not give sanctions relief.

Some US and European officials believe that if enough Russians protest in the streets and enough tycoons turn against Mr. Putin, the war will be called off. Potential US officials stress the importance of punishment and future deterrence, claiming that the collapse of Russia's economy will serve as a visible result of Mr. Putin's conduct and a signal to other aggressors.

However, Russia's economy, valued at $1.5 trillion, is the world's 11th largest. No country has ever attempted to bring such a large economy to the brink of collapse, with unknown global ramifications. And the US and European measures could pave the way for a new form of great-power conflict in the future.

The initiatives have also sparked debate in Washington and Europe over whether Russia's events could lead to "regime change" or rulership breakdown, something President Biden and other European leaders are careful not to say.

In a news conference on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken declared, "This isn't the Russian people's war." "However, the Russian people will bear the repercussions of their leaders' decisions," he continued.

He stated, "The economic costs that we've been compelled to inflict on Russia are not intended at you." "They're meant to put pressure on your government to quit acting aggressively."

By far the hardest sanctions are those that prevent Russia's Central Bank from accessing much of its $643 billion in foreign currency reserves, causing the ruble's value to plummet. Panic has spread over Russia. Citizens are frantically trying to get money out of banks, preferably in dollars, and others are fleeing the country.

New sanctions against oligarchs with close ties to Mr. Putin were also announced this week by the US and Europe. Around the world, officials are attempting to seize their homes, yachts, and private jets. The superyacht of Igor Sechin, the CEO of Rosneft, the Russian state oil corporation, was seized by French officials on Thursday.

"The sanctions have proven to be fairly unprecedented," Maria Snegovaya, a visiting professor at George Washington University who has researched US sanctions against Russia, said. "Everyone in Russia is in a state of shock. They're attempting to figure out how to keep their money safe."

Bruno Le Maire, the French finance minister, has used some of the strongest language yet to describe the mission, saying on a radio broadcast on Tuesday that Western nations were "waging an all-out economic and financial war on Russia" in order to "create the collapse of the Russian economy." He then expressed contrition for his remarks.

The possibility that mass political opposition, if powerful enough, could threaten Mr. Putin's grasp on power, has been highlighted by evidence of shock and outrage among Russians, which is primarily anecdotal in a country with restricted speech and minimal public opinion polling.

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

Putin warns that officials who oppose the invasion put the future of Ukraine's statehood in jeopardy.

"So I'm hoping somebody in Russia would recognize that he's killing Russia, and you need to take this guy out by any means available," Mr. Graham concluded, reaffirming his Thursday Twitter post advocating for Mr. Putin's assassination.

The penalties, according to a spokeswoman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, are "designed to bring down the Putin government." Mr. Johnson's administration promptly retracted the statement, claiming that it did not reflect his government's position and that the actions were intended to halt Russia's aggression against Ukraine.

Former US ambassador to Russia Michael A. McFaul said discussion of Mr. Putin's toppling is counterproductive, and that penalties should be limited and described as a means of preventing the invasion. "The goal should be to bring the battle to a close," he stated.

While the Biden administration has stated that diplomacy with Russia is still an option, it has not proposed to lift any sanctions in exchange for de-escalation.

On Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki stated, "Right now, they're marching on Kyiv with a convoy and continuing to take apparently heinous steps against the people of Ukraine." "So, no, we are not offering options for decreasing punishment at this time."

However, Victoria J. Nuland, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs, offered criteria for prospective sanctions relaxation in an interview with the Russian news agency TASS on Friday. She stated that Mr. Putin must put an end to the conflict, assist in the "rebuilding" of Ukraine, and accept the country's sovereignty, borders, and right to exist. Those are terms that the Russian president is unlikely to accept.

While this has been going on, Biden officials have tried to reassure the Russian people that they are not enjoying their agony. The US and Europe have tried to protect Russians from some of the consequences, including allowing consumer electronics sales to Russia despite new export restrictions.

They have also avoided imposing energy restrictions due to Europe's reliance on Russian gas and the potential for rising oil costs.

Even still, Mr. Putin and his aides are attempting to extract some political benefit from the sanctions, claiming that the West's true goal has always been to harm Russia. Mr. Putin predicted that the US would sanction his country "no matter what" as he launched his invasion last week.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said Al Jazeera on Wednesday that the sanctions were aimed to "target average people," and that the West has shut off cultural exchange programs and even Russian sports teams.

Sanctions, whatever their particular objective, have a terrible track record of compelling governments to change their ways. After President Donald J. Trump withdrew from a nuclear agreement, the Trump administration's sanctions on Iran, which were among the toughest ever imposed on any country, failed to persuade Tehran to cease funding militias across the Middle East or to halt its uranium enrichment activities. Despite severe sanctions imposed by four American presidents, North Korea has moved forward with its nuclear weapons program.

Sanctions imposed by the United States on Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela have mostly followed the same pattern.

Some US and European officials believe that if enough Russians protest and enough tycoons turn against President Vladimir V. Putin, the war will be called off.

Some US and European officials believe that if enough Russians protest and enough tycoons turn against President Vladimir V. Putin, the war will be called off.

Sanctions have helped the US government achieve certain minor goals on occasion. According to several commentators and US officials, Iran initiated nuclear negotiations after the Obama administration imposed sanctions. Officials in the Trump administration claim that sanctions forced North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to meet with Mr. Trump (along with Twitter messages and letters between the leaders).

And other former Obama officials, including those who now work for Vice President Joe Biden, have claimed that sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 helped to deter Mr. Putin from further invading Ukraine after he invaded Crimea and launched a separatist war in the country's east.

The Biden administration threatened Mr. Putin with sanctions this winter in an attempt to prevent him from invading Ukraine. It warned that the actions would be harsh, but did not specify what they would be. According to a former US official, US authorities did not publicly broach the idea of sanctioning Russia's central bank — the heaviest sanction imposed thus far — because they were unsure whether European nations would be on board.

The ruble fell in value on Monday as the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union announced penalties against the central bank. The bank no longer has access to foreign currency reserves kept outside of Russia, so it can't buy rubles to prop up the currency's value. Some Russian state-owned enterprises with foreign currency reserves that the central bank may use have also been sanctioned by the Treasury Department.

Russia's stock exchange was shut down as the country's economy shook. "Dear stock market, you were close to us, you were interesting," remarked Alexander Butmanov, an investment analyst, on a Russian news program. "Dear comrade, may you rest in peace."

This week, some Russians were driving to the border with cash in their hands.

However, if the purpose of sanctions is to force Mr. Putin to terminate his war, the endpoint appears to be a long way off.

"The Russian political system is not based on popular support. That is significant, but it is not the most crucial factor, according to Ms. Snegovaya. "It could depend on the extent of the issue – if there are a lot of protests in the streets, the Kremlin might reconsider."

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