New US sanctions against the Kremlin interests are not very harsh. It suggests that the White House may be hoping to reach an understanding with Russia's Vladimir Putin, writes Konstantin Eggert.
US President Joe Biden has dealt a hard blow to the Putin regime. Or did he? At first glance, everything looks as if the White House sanctions escalated to a new level the confrontation with Moscow. In addition to the expulsion of Russian diplomats — as well as measures against individuals and companies associated with the Kremlin — Washington introduced new restrictions targeting Russia's sovereign debt.
Not even a day passed between Biden's phone call to Russian President Vladimir Putin — which included an offer to meet — and the unveiling of the sanctions. At first glance, imposing sanctions immediately after the conversation ruins hopes for the summit. Preparations for such meetings presuppose a certain restraint on both sides.
Biden had been repeatedly criticized for not holding the Kremlin to account for the 2020 US presidential election interference and massive cyberattacks. He could not have held out without doing something for much longer, especially in the context of growing tensions over Ukraine. So he chose relatively lenient measures for now — and maybe even told Putin about them.
The fact that The New York Times — one of the main channels the Democratic administration uses for leaks — wrote in some detailabout the sanctions in advance serves as an indirect confirmation. If you are planning a surprise strike, you do not tell your favorite newspaper about it in advance.
The only really unpleasant thing for the Kremlin is that, according tothe text of the executive order, from now on, Biden and his successors in the White House can impose sanctions for any Kremlin action they consider hostile, and against any company or individuals deemed complicit in it, including the spouses and adult children of members of the Russian ruling elite. All this can be done without consulting Congress.
One Western financial analyst described it to me as "the new American Damocles sword over Putin — five times larger and five times sharper than the previous one."
These sanctions imply not so much immediate damage as it does drawing the red lines for the future. Now it is Putin's turn to respond. In his universe, Biden's call to Moscow shows the US leader blinked first. Putin also couldn't help noticing that the US recalled its two destroyers that were sent to sail in the Black Sea to show support for Ukraine. So he ordered closing off significant areas of the Sea of Azov until October under the pretext of "naval exercises" a move clearly intended to threaten Ukraine with a potential blockade of its ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol. There was no strong response from the White House to these moves as of yet.
Putin will also expel US diplomats in a tit-for-tat move and maybe close the already semi-shut Moscow bureau of US Russian language broadcaster Radio Svoboda (Radio Liberty). But the Russian strongman will reserve the main response until his scheduled annual address to both houses of parliament on April 21.
Anti-Ukrainian militaristic hysteria in Russian state media shows no sign of subsiding. Next week Putin may recognize the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk "People's Republics" — the Kremlin's puppet entities in the Donbass. He may also announce that Moscow will send in its "peacekeepers" to protect the population there from an attack by Ukrainian forces.
Of course, in this case, some indignation in the West is unavoidable — and new, not terribly harsh sanctions may follow. Reaction in Kyiv will be predictably harsh and indignant, but this will relieve the Ukrainian leadership from the necessity to perform a diplomatic dance around the Minsk Agreements, which it rightly considers to have been signed under duress and has no intention to implement.
But if the US administration indeed wants to work out a kind of "stability pact" with the Putin regime, hedged by a threat of new hard sanctions if the red lines are crossed, such an "understanding" between the two sides may well be on the cards. The upside for Biden is that he can then hope to turn to his more pressing foreign policy issues, like China, as well as his vast domestic agenda. The two leaders will then hold the summit that Biden proposed to Putin, and discuss other issues, like the new START treaty and renewing the Iran nuclear deal.
This is only one version of possible developments. The problem is that such agreements with the Kremlin are notoriously fragile — and depend on Putin's assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of his adversaries.