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Biden announces new sanctions on Russian banks, elites but not yet on Putin himself

(WASHINGTON) — After weeks of warning of “severe” sanctions if Russia invaded Ukraine, President Joe Biden addressed the nation and the world from the White House Thursday in what’s unfolding as a defining moment in his presidency as President Vladimir Putin pressed a large-scale attack.

Biden announced escalated sanctions to correspond with the escalated Russian aggression, but not the full economic punishment Ukraine and others have called for and none yet on Putin himself, although he did say that option was “not a bluff. It’s on the table.”

“The Russian military has begun a brutal assault on Ukraine without provocation, without justification, without necessity,” Biden said firmly. “This is a premeditated attack.”

Biden announced new sanctions on four large Russian banks including VTB and SberBank, additional Russian elites and family members, and applying the restriction of Russia’s sovereign debt to state-owned enterprises, companies whose assets exceed $1.4 trillion.

“Putin is the aggressor. Putin chose this war. And now he and his country will bear the consequences,” Biden said. “Today, I am authorizing additional strong sanctions and new limitations on what can be exported to Russia. This is going to impose severe costs on the Russian economy, both immediately and over time.”

However, Biden stopped short not only of sanctioning Putin himself also of cutting Russia off from the SWIFT international banking system.

Pressed by reporters why not sanction Putin directly now, Biden deflected.

“Sir, sanctions clearly have not been enough to deter Vladimir Putin to this point,” said ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Cecilia Vega. “What is going to stop him? How and when does this end? And do you see him trying to go beyond Ukraine?”

“No one expected the sanctions to prevent anything from happening,” Biden replied. “It has to — it’s going to take time, and we have to show resolve. So, he knows what is coming. And so the people of Russia know what he’s brought on them.”

“Between our actions and those of our allies and partners, we estimate that we’ll cut off more than half of Russia’s high-tech imports,” Biden said in his prepared remarks. “We’ll strike a blow to their ability to continue to modernize their military. It will degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program. It will hurt their ability to build ships, reducing their ability to compete economically. And it will be a major hit to Putin’s long-term strategic ambitions.”

But it’s still unclear whether the sanctions will make any difference in what Putin claimed overnight would be a “special military operation” in eastern Ukraine, which is proving to be much more widespread.

“To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside, if you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history,” Putin warned the world.

While it was also still unclear just how far Putin would go beyond eastern Ukraine, Russian forces attacked near the capital city Kyiv — raising new fears he would try to topple Ukraine’s government.

Biden has maintained that U.S. forces will not fight Russians on the ground but announced he was authorizing additional U.S. force capabilities to deploy to Germany as part of NATO’s response force — including the 8,500 troops put on “heightened alert” last month.

“Our forces are not going to Europe to fight in Ukraine but to defend our NATO allies and reassure those allies in the East. As I made crystal clear, the United States will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power,” Biden said.

“I’ve also spoken with Defense Secretary Austin and Chairman of Joint Chiefs General Milly about preparations for additional moves, should they become necessary, to protect our NATO allies and support the greatest military alliance in the history of the world — NATO,” he added later on.

Biden also said that NATO would convene a summit Friday.

“This aggression cannot go unanswered,” Biden added. “If it did, the consequences would be much worse.”

Will Biden sanction Putin personally?

The Biden administration had threatened further sanctions on major Russian financial institutions and banks and to take steps to restrict Russian access to technology — as it did Thursday — but it had also weighed cutting Russia off from SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) — which would hinder Russia’s participation in global markets, and to directly sanction Putin’s inner circle — or the Russian president himself.

Biden told reporters late last month that he would consider personally sanctioning Putin if Russia invaded Ukraine — a day after 8,500 American forces were put on “heightened alert” in the region — but those efforts did not appear to deter the Russian leader, nor did economic sanctions imposed this week by the U.S. and European allies, including halting the certification of Nord Stream 2, a major natural gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany.

But Biden has not gone that far.

The administration has begun to roll out a “first tranche” of sanctions, related to Russian banks, oligarchs and the natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2, as some lawmakers have criticized Biden of not going far enough on sanctions, which haven’t resulted in Russia reversing course.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell at a press event in Kentucky ahead of Biden’s remarks called on the administration to “ratchet the sanctions all the way up” on Russia.

“Don’t hold any back. Every single available tough sanction should be employed and should be employed now,” McConnell said.

He said “we honestly don’t know” if sanctions would be enough to deter Putin but argued harsher ones were still necessary.

As of Thursday morning, Russian forces had advanced from three directions — from the south heading north, from Belarus heading south to Kyiv and from northeast of Ukraine heading to the south — as Ukrainian woke up to a nation at war.

US military assessment, diplomatic moves

U.S. intelligence believes these three axes were “designed to take key population centers,” a senior defense official said Thursday.

The White House has said the sanctions will be “united and decisive,” but it remains to be seen how the West can punish Putin, who seems intent on moving ahead with his plans, despite weeks of attempted diplomacy from the international community and a set of sanctions already imposed.

With the U.S. condemning what’s it calling an “unprovoked and unjustified” attack on Ukraine, Biden met with his National Security Council in the Situation Room early Thursday ahead of a virtual video call with G-7 leaders to discuss a united response to the Russian attack.

Notably, Russia was a part of the G-7 until its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 — where it is now closing in further on Ukrainian borders.

Biden was at the White House overnight as the attack unfolded.

Within minutes, Biden was on the phone with the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who had reached out to him after receiving “silence,” he said, on a phone call to Putin. Russia has two tactical goals in Ukraine, according to Zelenskyy’s office: seizing territory and toppling Ukrainian leadership.

Consequences — for Americans

After their call, Biden released a statement saying that Putin “has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering.”

“The prayers of the world are with the people of Ukraine tonight as they suffer an unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces,” Biden said.

The American president has acknowledged that there will be “consequences at home” — particularly at the gas pump and in energy prices — as a result of the Russian invasion and subsequent sanctions but has vowed to mitigate those costs.

However, ahead of his Thursday remarks, U.S. crude oil prices topped $100 a barrel, sending gasoline prices to an average of $3.54 a gallon, according to the American Automobile Association. At least three states had average gas prices of $4 or higher. Meanwhile, U.S. stock and dow futures also plunged.

“We’re taking active steps to bring down the cost, and American oil and gas companies should not — should not — exploit this moment to hike their respect prices to raise profits,” Biden said Thursday. “In our sanctions package, we specifically designed to allow energy payments to continue.”

Throughout the crisis, Biden has reminded Americans that the U.S. has a responsibility to defend its NATO allies — and democracy around the world.

“America stands up to bullies,” Biden said Thursday. “We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.”

ABC News’ Luis Martinez, Patrick Reevell, Allison Pecorin, Zunaira Zaki, Sarah Kolinovsky and Molly Nagle contributed to this report.

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