Biden travels to Europe to bolster Russian sanctions and maintain unity with allies

WASHINGTON — President Biden will press his allies this week for even more aggressive economic sanctions against Russia at a series of global summits in Europe, White House officials said Tuesday, seeking to maintain unity. objective as the forces of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia continue to rain destruction on the cities of Ukraine.

In Brussels on Thursday, Biden and other leaders will announce a “next phase” of military assistance to Ukraine, new plans to expand and enforce economic sanctions and a push to further bolster NATO defenses along the way. along the border with Russia, said Jake Sullivan. , the White House national security adviser.

“The president is going to Europe to make sure we stay united, to cement our collective resolve, to send a powerful message that we are ready and committed for as long as it takes,” Sullivan told reporters. .

Officials declined to be specific about the announcements, saying the president will summarize details of the new sanctions and other measures during his deliberations in Brussels. But Mr. Biden faces a daunting challenge as he struggles to deal with Mr. Putin’s war, which Mr. Sullivan said “will not end easily or quickly”.

The alliance has already pushed back the limits of economic sanctions imposed by European countries dependent on Russian energy. And the NATO alliance has largely exhausted most of its military options — barring a direct confrontation with Russia, which Mr Biden says could lead to World War III.

That leaves the president and his counterparts with a relatively short list of announcements they can make on Thursday after three consecutive closed-door meetings. Sullivan said there will be “new designations, new targets” for sanctions inside Russia. And he said the United States would make further announcements on efforts to help European nations wean off Russian energy.

Yet the main focus of the summits – which convened in just a week thanks to diplomats in dozens of countries – could be a further public declaration that Mr Putin’s invasion will not lead to sniping and to disagreements between the allies.

Despite Russia’s intention to “divide and weaken the West”, Sullivan said, allies in Europe and elsewhere remained “more united, more determined and more resolute than at any time in recent memory. “.

So far, this unit has done little to limit the violence in Ukraine. The United States and Europe have already imposed the widest range of economic sanctions ever imposed on a country the size and wealth of Russia, and there have been early signs that loopholes have blunted part of the bite that sanctions against Russia’s central bank and major financial institutions were intended to have on its economy.

Despite speculation that Russia could default on its sovereign debt last week, it was able to make interest payments on $117 million owed on two US dollar-denominated bonds. And after initially plunging to record lows this month, the ruble has since stabilized.

Russia was able to avoid the default for now thanks to an exception built into the sanctions that allowed it to continue making dollar payments until May 25. This loophole protects foreign investors and gives Russia more time to devastate Ukraine without feeling all the wrath of the sanctions. .

Meanwhile, although about half of Russia’s $640 billion in foreign exchange reserves are frozen, it has been able to rebuild them by continuing to sell energy to Europe and other places.

“The fact that Russia generates a large trade and current account surplus due to energy exports means that Russia generates a constant flow of hard currency in euros and dollars,” said Robin Brooks, chief economist at the Institute. of International Finance. “If you look at the evasion of sanctions or the effectiveness of sanctions, this has always been a major loophole.”

The president is due to leave Washington on Wednesday morning before Thursday’s summits with NATO, the Group of 7 nations and the European Council, a meeting of the 27 leaders of European Union countries. On Friday, Mr. Biden will travel to Poland, where he will discuss the Ukrainian refugees who have flocked to the country since the start of the war. He will also visit US troops stationed in Poland as part of NATO forces.

Mr Biden is expected to meet Polish President Andrzej Duda on Saturday before returning to the White House later in the day.

White House officials said a key part of the announcements in Brussels would be new enforcement measures aimed at ensuring Russia was not able to escape the anticipated impact of sanctions.

“This announcement will focus not just on adding new sanctions,” Sullivan said, “but on ensuring a joint effort to crack down on sanctions evasion, any attempt by any country to help Russia fundamentally undermine, weaken or circumvent sanctions.

He later added, “So stay tuned for that.”

Sanctions experts have suggested Western allies could allow Russian energy exports to continue, but insist that payments be held in escrow accounts until Mr Putin halts the invasion. This would borrow from the playbook the United States used with Iran, when it allowed certain oil exports but required that revenues from those transactions be held in accounts that could only be used to fund bilateral trade.

The United States and Europe could also broaden their sanctions against Russia’s financial sector and target its major energy companies, Gazprom and Rosneft, without banning oil and gas exports. Such a move would hamper future energy exploration projects and inflict longer-term damage to its production capacity, U.S. officials said.

Biden administration officials said they designed the sanctions on Russia to allow its continued energy exports, acknowledging Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas and saying that market disruption could have a negative impact on the global economy.

In recent days, European leaders have come under increasing pressure from the US administration as well as a core of hardliners within their ranks – including Poland and the smaller Baltic states – to impose an embargo. tanker to Russia.

But ahead of Thursday’s meetings, European Union leaders did not appear headed for such a move, which would hit Germany, the bloc’s de facto leader and biggest economy, the hardest.

Germany’s resistance to an oil embargo, according to European Union diplomats, is based on the argument that such a move would hurt European economies more than Russia. Hungary, a small EU country heavily dependent on Russian oil, supports Germany alongside Bulgaria. And the Netherlands, which also has influence in the bloc, backs Germany, fearing a loss of revenue from its key port of Rotterdam if Russian fuels are subject to sanctions.

Instead, some EU countries suggest the bloc is looking more closely at penalizing Russian coal, another major export that has so far escaped EU sanctions and on which Germany and Poland depend. particularly. Coal, diplomats said, would be an easier fuel to agree to block, given that the European Union as a whole should have largely abandoned it, as part of its green energy transition program .

Mr Biden’s presence at the EU leaders’ summit could force more consensus among Europeans, but diplomats said a breakthrough on a Russian oil embargo was unlikely.

The summit day was Mr. Biden’s idea. He moved in just 10 days ago, aides and diplomats said, hoping to show the West’s continued unity and send a message to Russia.

At first, many of America’s closest allies were apprehensive: Summits typically have months of preparation and culminate in a series of concrete actions that are agreed to well in advance and announced as if the leaders had any. discussed at the meeting and reached an agreement. But the lack of time has led to a scramble to find deals on sanctions, long-term Russian energy walkouts and arms pledges for the Ukrainians.

A senior administration official said that for Mr. Biden, the meeting itself was symbolic. It brings together the 30 nations of NATO to express their solidarity and their horror. Russia could, at best, round up Belarus and perhaps India and China, and the latter two have neither condemned nor endorsed Mr. Putin’s actions.

In Poland, Mr. Biden’s last stop, he will have the chance to find himself among the refugees. White House officials believe it will be a powerful image: At a time when Mr. Putin is bombing buildings and unleashing death from the sky as schools, arts centers and malls crumble, Mr. Biden will promise help and, to some, refuge in the United States.

The most critical of the meetings, however, will take place at NATO. Despite all the signs of unity, there is nervousness about Mr. Putin’s next move and what will happen if he uses chemical or biological weapons. And so far, officials say, while those possibilities have been debated, there’s been no unity on how the West would react — an issue Mr Biden and his aides will have to address, behind closed doors. closed.

David E. Sanger and Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed to reporting from Brussels, and Alan Rappeport from Washington.

Mary I. Bruner