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With sanctions, the United States and Europe aim to punish Putin and fuel Russian unrest

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

The harsh sentences – which have sent the rouble plummeting, the Russian stock market crashing and bank runs running – contradict previous statements by US officials that they would refrain from inflicting suffering on ordinary Russians. “We are targeting them carefully to avoid even the appearance of targeting the average Russian civilian,” said Daleep Singh, deputy national security adviser for international economics. said during a White House briefing last month.

The escalation of sanctions this week has happened much faster than many officials expected, largely because European leaders adopted the most aggressive measures proposed by Washington, US officials said.

As the Russian economy collapses, major companies – Apple, Boeing and Shell, including Apple – are suspending or ceasing operations in the country. The Biden administration said on Thursday it would not offer sanctions relief amid Mr Putin’s increasingly brutal offensive.

The thought of some US and European officials is that Mr Putin could stop the war if enough Russians demonstrated in the streets and enough tycoons turned against him. Other U.S. officials point to punishment and future deterrence goals, saying the carcass of Russia’s economy will serve as a visible consequence of Mr. Putin’s actions and a warning to other aggressors.

But Russia’s $1.5 trillion economy is the 11th largest in the world. No country has tried to push an economy of this size to the brink of collapse, with unknown consequences for the world. And the actions of the United States and Europe could pave the way for a new kind of great power conflict in the future.

The moves have also sparked questions in Washington and European capitals about whether the cascading events in Russia could lead to “regime change” or a collapse of power, which President Biden and European leaders are avoiding. to say.

“This is not the Russian people’s war,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Wednesday at a press conference. But, he added, “the Russian people will suffer the consequences of their leaders’ choices.”

“The economic costs that we have been forced to impose on Russia are not for you,” he said. “They are meant to compel your government to stop its actions, to stop its aggression.”

By far the toughest sanctions are those that prevent Russia’s Central Bank from tapping into much of its $643 billion in foreign exchange reserves, which has led to a sharp drop in the value of the rouble. Panic has set in across Russia. Citizens are scrambling to withdraw money from banks, preferably in dollars, and some are fleeing the country.

The United States and Europe also this week announced new sanctions against oligarchs close to Mr Putin. Authorities are moving to seize their homes, yachts and private jets around the world. On Thursday, French officials seized the superyacht of Igor Sechin, the chief executive of Rosneft, the Russian oil giant.

“The sanctions have proven to be quite unprecedented,” said Maria Snegovaya, a visiting scholar at George Washington University who has studied US sanctions against Russia. “Everyone in Russia is horrified. They try to think about the best way to preserve their money.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire has used some of the harshest terms yet to articulate the mission, tell a radio show Tuesday that Western nations were “waging an all-out economic and financial war against Russia” to “bring about the collapse of the Russian economy.” He later said he regretted his words.

The evidence of shock and anger among Russians — mostly anecdotal in a country with restricted speech and few public opinion polls — has raised the specter of mass political dissent which, if strong enough , could threaten Mr. Putin’s grip on power.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said on Fox News“The best way to end this is to have Eliot Ness or Wyatt Earp in Russia, the Russian Spring, so to speak, where people get up and knock him down.”

Mr Graham added: ‘So I hope someone in Russia understands that he is destroying Russia, and you have to eliminate this guy by any means possible,’ reiterating his post on Twitter Thursday calling for the assassination of Mr. Putin.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday that the sanctions were “designed to bring down Putin’s regime”. Mr Johnson’s office quickly corrected the statement, saying it did not reflect the views of his government and that the purpose of the measures was to stop Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

Michael A. McFaul, former US ambassador to Moscow, called the talk of overthrowing Putin unnecessary, stressing that sanctions should be tailored and portrayed as a way to stop the invasion. “The goal should be to end the war,” he said.

But while the Biden administration has said it is still open to diplomacy with Russia, it has not offered to roll back any of the sanctions in exchange for de-escalation.

“Right now they are marching towards Kiev with a convoy and continuing to take seemingly barbaric actions against the Ukrainian people,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. “So, no, this is not the time when we are offering options to reduce sanctions.”

But in an interview Friday with the Russian news agency TASS, Victoria J. Nuland, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs, suggested terms for possible sanctions relief, albeit maximalist ones. She said Mr Putin must end the war, help “rebuild” Ukraine and recognize its sovereignty, borders and right to exist. These are conditions the Russian leader is highly unlikely to consider.

All the while, Biden officials have sought to assure the Russian people that they take no pleasure in suffering. The United States and Europe have tried to spare the Russians some of the effects, including allowing the sale of consumer technology to Russia despite new export limits.

They also refrained from imposing energy sanctions due to Europe’s dependence on Russian gas and the risk of rising oil prices.

Even so, Mr. Putin and his aides are doing their best to find political advantage in sanctions, arguing that the West’s real goal has always been to weaken Russia. As he launched his invasion last week, Mr Putin said the US would have sanctioned his country “no matter what”.

In an interview with Al Jazeera on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov said the sanctions were meant to “target ordinary people” and that the West had halted cultural exchange programs and even Russian sports teams.

Whatever their precise objective, sanctions fail to persuade governments to change their behavior. Trump administration sanctions on Iran, perhaps the toughest imposed on any country, have not compelled Tehran to stop supporting militias across the Middle East or suspend enrichment efforts of uranium after President Donald J. Trump pulled out of a nuclear deal. North Korea has pushed ahead with its nuclear weapons program despite major sanctions from four US presidents.

The same was true for US sanctions against Syria, Cuba and Venezuela.

On occasion, the US government has achieved modest goals with sanctions. Some US analysts and officials say Iran began negotiations on a nuclear deal after the Obama administration imposed sanctions. Trump administration officials said the sanctions helped Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, meet with Mr. Trump (as well as Twitter messages and letters between the leaders).

And some former Obama officials, including those now serving in the Biden administration, have argued that sanctions on Russia in 2014 helped deter Mr. Putin from pushing deeper into Ukraine after he annexed the country. Crimea and unleashed a separatist war in the east of the country.

This winter, the Biden administration used the threat of sanctions to try to dissuade Mr. Putin from invading Ukraine. He warned the measures would be harsh but did not go into details. US officials did not publicly mention the possibility of penalizing the Russian central bank – the most severe sanction imposed so far – because they did not know whether European nations would be on board, a former official said. American.

After the United States, Britain and the European Union announced sanctions against the central bank, the value of the ruble fell on Monday. The bank no longer has access to foreign currency reserves held outside of Russia, so it cannot use these assets to buy rubles and support its value. The Treasury Department has also imposed sanctions on some Russian state-owned companies that hold foreign currency assets that the central bank could exploit.

As its economy shook, Russia suspended trading on its stock market. In a Russian news program, Alexander Butmanov, an investment analyst, made a toast and said, “Dear fellow, you were close to us, you were interesting. Rest in peace, dear comrade.

This week, some Russians were going to the borders with bags of money.

But if the purpose of the sanctions is to coerce Mr. Putin into stopping his war, then the end point seems remote.

“The Russian political system does not depend on the approval of the people. It is important, but it is not the most important,” Ms Snegovaya said. “It could depend on the scale of the crisis – if we see a lot of protests in the streets, it could make the Kremlin think twice.”