How punishing Putin’s suspected lover might be a way for the US to retaliate if Russia invades Ukraine


imageHere’s what sanctions the US could impose on Russia if it invades Ukraine

The financial options being considered to punish President Vladimir Putin if Russia invades Ukraine range from the sweeping to the acutely personal.

Publicly, the United States and European allies have promised to hit Russia financially like never before if Mr Putin does roll his military into Ukraine.

The measures on the table range from cutting Russia off from US dollars and international banking to slapping sanctions on a former Olympic gymnast reported to be Mr Putin’s partner.

Leaders have given few hard details to the public, however, arguing it is best to keep Mr Putin guessing.

And weeks into the negotiations, it is far from clear that there is a consensus on what sanctions could be imposed, and what would trigger them.

Here are some of the financial actions under consideration.

SWIFT retaliation

For the US and its European allies, cutting Russia out of the SWIFT financial system, which shuffles money from bank to bank around the globe, would be one of the toughest financial steps they could take, damaging Russia’s economy immediately and in the long term.

The move could cut Russia off from most international financial transactions, including international profits from oil and gas production, which in all account for more than 40 per cent of the country’s revenue.

Allies on both sides of the Atlantic also considered the SWIFT option in 2014, when Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea and backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.

Russia declared then that kicking it out of SWIFT would be equivalent to a declaration of war.

The allies — criticised ever after for responding too weakly to Russia’s 2014 aggression — shelved the idea.

Russia since then has tried to develop its own financial transfer system, with limited success.

The US has succeeded before in persuading the SWIFT system to kick out a country — Iran, over its nuclear program.

But kicking Russia out of SWIFT would also hurt other economies, including those of the US and key ally Germany.

US lawmakers said last week that the Biden administration was still analysing how bad that impact would be.

When German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was asked about the proposed Russian SWIFT ban, she seemed to express doubts.

“The toughest stick won’t always ultimately be the most intelligent sword,” she said.

Dollar clearing

The United States already holds one of the most powerful financial weapons — blocking Russia from access to the US dollar.

The greenback still dominates financial transactions around the world, with trillions of dollars in play daily.

Transactions in US dollars are ultimately cleared through the Federal Reserve or through US financial institutions.

Crucially for Mr Putin, that means foreign banks have to be able to access the US financial system to settle dollar transactions.

The ability to block that access gives the United States the ability to inflict financial pain well beyond its borders.

Previously, the US has suspended financial institutions from dollar clearing for allegedly violating sanctions against Iran, Sudan and other countries.

Mr Biden indicated to reporters that cutting off Russia’s and Russians’ ability to deal in dollars was one of the options the US was studying.

Unlike the SWIFT option and the other financial measures, it’s one the US could do on its own.

Many Russians and Russian companies would be stymied in carrying out even the most routine transactions, like making payroll or buying things, because they would have no access to the US banking system.

Export controls

White House press secretary Jen Psaki has confirmed that the US is considering imposing export controls — potentially cutting off Russia from the tech that helps warplanes and passenger jets fly and makes smartphones smart, along with the other software and advanced electronic gear that makes the modern world run.

That could include adding Russia to the most restrictive group of countries for export control purposes, together with Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria, officials said.

That would mean that Russia’s ability to obtain integrated circuits, and products containing integrated circuits, would be severely restricted, because of the global dominance of US software, technology and equipment.

The impact could extend to aircraft avionics, machine tools, smartphones, game consoles, tablets and televisions.

Such sanctions could also target critical Russian industry, including its defence and civil aviation sectors, which would hit Russia’s high-tech ambitions, whether in artificial intelligence or quantum computing.

Like some of the other penalties under consideration, US export restrictions would risk motivating businesses to look for alternatives in other countries, including China.

Bond markets

The Biden administration has already limited Russia’s ability to borrow money, by banning US financial institutions from buying Russian government bonds directly from state institutions.

But the sanctions didn’t target the secondary market, leaving this as a possible next step.

Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline

Republicans and Democrats in the US Congress fought Russia’s new Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline to Germany for years, arguing it would help Russia use its control of the gas supply as leverage to achieve its policy aims in Europe.

Rival bills in Congress would sanction the pipeline’s operators — Republicans want to impose the sanctions right away, but Democrats only if Russia invades Ukraine.

The Biden administration has so far held off from that level of sanctions, to avoid conflict with ally Germany.

German officials say blocking operation of the pipeline would be “on the table” if there’s an invasion — but that’s as far as they’ve gone publicly.

Going after the oligarchs …and a reported girlfriend

One of the most-used US tactics is sanctioning the immediate circles of leaders, their families, and military and civilian circles.

Mr Putin and his friends and family could face that as well, along with Russia’s powerful business oligarchs, and its banks.

Sweeping legislation by Indiana Republican representative Jim Banks, co-sponsored by nearly 40 other House Republicans, would pile on sanctions even before any further Russian invasion of Ukraine, from the SWIFT cut-off to the Nord Stream penalties.

They also want the US to consider targeting many in Russia’s upper echelon with sanctions.

That includes Mr Putin’s family and a woman reported to be Mr Putin’s romantic interest, Alina Kabaeva, who won Olympic gold in 2004 in rhythmic gymnastics.


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