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Explainer: How the US could tighten sanctions on Russia

The United States has in the past imposed sanctions on heads of state, including on Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro and Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

February 26, 2022 / 10:00 AM IST
US President Joe Biden (Image: AFP)

US President Joe Biden (Image: AFP)

The United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its invasion of Ukraine, targeting major banks and members of the elite coupled with new export control measures.

Washington warned that more action could follow and that all options are on the table. The below are some ways in which the United States could further escalate sanctions on Russia.

SANCTIONS ON PUTIN

The United States could take the rare but not unprecedented step of imposing sanctions on a head of state and designate Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The United States has in the past imposed sanctions on heads of state, including on Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro and Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

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The EU on Friday agreed to freeze any European assets of Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

SWIFT

Another option could be shutting Russia out of SWIFT – the world's main international payments network – which would hit Russian trade and make it harder for Russian companies to do business.

SWIFT is a secure messaging system that facilitates rapid cross-border payments and has become the principal mechanism for financing international trade.

In 2020, around 38 million SWIFT 'FIN messages' were sent each day over the SWIFT platform, according to its 2020 annual review. Each year, trillions of dollars are transferred using the system.

Asked why Washington did not shut Russia out of the payment system in Thursday's action, U.S. President Joe Biden said the sanctions that were rolled out against Russian banks incurred "equal consequence," if not more.

"It is always an option, but right now that's not the position that the rest of Europe wishes to take," Biden said.

The EU is looking at what the consequences would be of cutting Russia off from SWIFT, France's finance minister said on Friday. Some countries are reluctant over concerns about how payments for Russian energy imports would be made and whether EU creditors would get paid.

OLIGARCHS

The Treasury this week imposed sanctions on what it said were Russian "elites," including on some with ties to Sberbank, VTB, Rosneft and the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Brian O'Toole, a former U.S. Treasury Department official now with the Atlantic Council, said the United States could also impose sanctions on more significant Russian oligarchs.

O'Toole said those listed in Thursday's action were not "the major tycoons."

TIGHTENED SANCTIONS ON BANKS, FIRMS

Another option could include tightening sanctions on banks and firms the United States targeted in Thursday's action but did not designate using its most powerful sanctioning tool, the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list.

Washington said U.S. banks must sever their correspondent banking ties – which allow banks to make payments between one another and move money around the globe – with Russia's largest lender, Sberbank, but did not freeze its assets.

It also expanded the scope of existing curbs on U.S. persons dealing in the debt and equity of Russian state-owned enterprises. The restrictions apply to 13 firms, including Gazprombank, the Russian Agricultural Bank, and Gazprom.

Washington could tighten the restrictions on those entities and add them to the SDN list, a move that effectively kicks them out of the U.S. financial system, bans their trade with Americans and freezes their U.S. assets.

"We still have all options on the table. We have room to further escalate as Russia's aggression escalates," a senior U.S. administration official said.

OIL COMPANIES

Washington could decide to go after Russian oil companies, which it has so far largely held back from doing.

The Biden administration has seemed concerned that its sanctions could trigger higher energy prices and has taken steps to mitigate those effects, including by issuing a general license on Thursday authorizing energy-related transactions involving certain banks until June 24.

The official on Thursday said: "We know there are going to be some costs that we have to bear, but our goal is to mitigate those and that's why we stayed away from targeting energy."



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