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Biden's plans to hold Moscow accountable for invasion of Ukraine


As we keep hearing, Western leaders have condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin for invading Ukraine. When President Biden spoke earlier today, he described Putin as an aggressor with a, quote, "sinister vision of the world."


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It was always about naked aggression, about Putin's desire for empire by any means necessary - by bullying Russia's neighbors through coercion and corruption, by changing borders by force and, ultimately, by choosing a war without a cause.

CHANG: Well, the West unveiled a new round of economic punishments in response to Moscow's moves, but there were some notable exceptions. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid joins us now to talk about that. Hey, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi there, Ailsa.

CHANG: So how sweeping are these new measures?

KHALID: Well, they are certainly stronger and more severe than anything that we have seen to date against Russia. And the major announcement is a decision to sanction a number of Russia's key financial institutions - some of the largest state-owned enterprises as well. The United States is blocking transactions with the two largest Russian banks and a few others.

But it is important to note, Ailsa, that there are carve-outs for energy and agriculture payments, and this is key because energy is a vital part of Russia's economy. And so if that sector is not being hit as strongly as it could be, there are questions about the ultimate efficacy of these sanctions. You know, Europe also does rely on Russian energy supplies, and I will say that is a big part of why the U.S. and its allies also did not take another key step today, which would be to cut Russia off from using the SWIFT global banking system.

They did go ahead with a plan to ban certain types of exports to Russia, specifically technology like semiconductors that Russia depends on from abroad. And then lastly, in this whole big, broad economic measures package, they decided to include some additional sanctions on Russian oligarchs.

Notably, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was not on that list. Biden told reporters that sanctioning him directly could remain an option. But when he was asked, why not do that today, he didn't answer that question.

CHANG: That's correct. Well, I want to go back to something you said earlier. Russia's economy is heavily dependent on oil and natural gas sales. So I'm curious, Asma, why were payments for energy transactions left out of these sanctions?

KHALID: You know, punishing Russia economically could have ripple effects throughout the world, I would say. And with inflation already at levels not seen in four decades, President Biden is acutely aware that rising energy prices could be a huge political problem. And he acknowledged today that Americans are already hurting.


BIDEN: I will do everything in my power to limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump. This is critical to me. But this aggression cannot go unanswered. If it did, the consequences for America would be much worse. America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom.

KHALID: And so the president there was trying to empathize yet also explain his view to Americans. And really, Ailsa, this gets back to the central foreign policy vision that Biden has. He has repeatedly said he sees the world going through a battle between autocracies and democracies, and he believes democracy needs to win.

CHANG: Right. There is a lot for Biden to balance at the moment, and I'm wondering, how has his response so far been playing for him politically? Like, what are you noticing?

KHALID: Well, he's facing criticism from Republicans, but also from some Democrats to be stronger to put even harsher punishment sanctions on Russia. And, you know, for weeks, this administration has been saying that sanctions would deter Putin from invading Ukraine. But today, the president seemed to change his tune. He told reporters that no one expected the sanctions to prevent anything from happening. And he said he'll have to reassess the sanctions' impact in a month.

Critics say Ukraine really doesn't have a month to wait and see what the impact of sanctions would be. The president also reiterated today that he will not send U.S. troops into Ukraine, but he did acknowledge that he believes Putin has ambitions beyond Ukraine's borders, and the U.S. does plan to send additional troops to Germany to bolster defense for NATO allies who are nervous about what Vladimir Putin might do next.

CHANG: That is NPR's Asma Khalid. Thank you, Asma.

KHALID: Happy to talk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.