Biden hits more Russian oligarchs with sanctions, including Nord Stream 2 builder

February 23, 2022, 7:57 PM UTC

President Joe Biden expanded sanctions against Russia on Wednesday, with new U.S. penalties hitting the builder of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and its corporate leadership.

The penalties are on top of a package announced a day earlier by the White House after Russian President Vladimir Putin moved to recognize breakaway territories in Ukraine as independent states.

“These steps are another piece of our initial tranche of sanctions in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine,” Biden said in a statement on Wednesday. “As I have made clear, we will not hesitate to take further steps if Russia continues to escalate.”

Implementation of the initial sanctions package and reports of additional steps to come battered the Russian markets, with the ruble on Wednesday extending declines to 81 per dollar, the weakest since March 2020.

Moscow has denied it plans to invade Ukraine, and Putin has said he doesn’t currently plan to send forces — he has called them “peacekeepers” — into the breakaway areas of eastern Ukraine, although the treaties he signed with the separatist leaders would allow him to do so and to build Russian bases.

The U.S. sanctions hit Nord Stream 2 AG, the company that built the $11 billion natural gas pipeline connecting Russia and Germany. Berlin moved Tuesday to halt certification of the project, a blow to Putin’s ambition to expand Russia’s hold on Europe’s energy supplies. Nord Stream 2 AG didn’t immediately respond to a call and email seeking comment.

Last year, some diplomats at the State Department had recommended going ahead with sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG and Matthias Warnig, its chief executive officer, only to be overruled by Biden, who argued doing so would alienate Germany and poison ties just as Washington needed Berlin’s help on issues including climate change, Iran and Russia. 

But by imposing the sanctions now, Washington would complicate any future effort to bring the pipeline online and amplify Germany’s announcement on Tuesday. 

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan coordinated plans for Nord Stream 2 sanctions with German officials earlier this week, according to the two people familiar with the internal deliberations. 

Biden said in his Wednesday statement: “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.”

The sanctions could mean that Republicans in Congress, led by Senator Ted Cruz, will stop blocking votes for several nominees for U.S. ambassador jobs and other senior State Department posts in an effort to force the Biden administration to impose penalties on the pipeline.

Also on Wednesday, the European Union formally approved a package of sanctions including penalties on 23 high-ranking individuals including banking executives, military chiefs, media figures and a top Kremlin official.

A day earlier, the U.S. announced penalties targeting state-owned banks VEB.RF and Promsvyazbank, which the U.S. said hold more than $80 billion in assets and finance the Russian defense sector and economic development.

The actions already announced freeze the banks’ U.S. assets, ban Americans from doing business with them, cut them off from the global financial system and eliminate their access to the dollar.

The White House also announced that Promsvyazbank Chief Executive Officer Petr Fradkov and two Russian government officials — Sergei Kiriyenko and Aleksandr Bortnikov — would face personal penalties blocking them from the U.S. financial system, as would some relatives. 

Biden said the U.S. would block the purchase of new issuances of sovereign debt, restricting Russia’s ability to secure Western financing.

Drawing criticism

Still, the sanctions package drew criticism from some lawmakers who said it fell short of the White House’s promise to impose dramatic consequences if Russian troops crossed the border into Ukraine.

Daleep Singh, the deputy national security adviser for international economics, told reporters in Washington on Tuesday that sanctions would escalate in the coming days.

“This was the beginning of an invasion, and this is the beginning of our response,” he said.

If Russia moves into Ukraine, White House officials have said they could target major Russian banks including Sberbank and VTB, as well as implement export control measures in coordination with a large number of allies and partners.

“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,” Singh said.

With assistance from Jenny Leonard and Anna Shiryaevskaya.

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