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Biden announces sanctions as Russian troops move into Ukraine


It's been a couple of days of fast-moving developments in the crisis over Russia's aggression toward Ukraine. And this afternoon, while responding to Russian troop movements and Vladimir Putin's escalating rhetoric, President Biden finally used the word he and his administration had been reluctant to use.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This is the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

RASCOE: A Russian invasion of Ukraine. Now after weeks of threats, European countries and the U.S. are rolling out sanctions.


BIDEN: So today, I'm announcing the first tranche of sanctions to impose cost on Russia in response to their actions yesterday.

RASCOE: We're going to catch up on all that's been going on today with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam.



RASCOE: Mara, let's start with you. What struck you about what the president said today?

LIASSON: Well, what struck me was what you just heard - that he cleared up any confusion there might have been about whether the administration considers what Russia did an invasion. The president said that Russia has undeniably moved against Ukraine. Not only is this a beginning of a, quote, "Russian invasion of Ukraine," but he said that Putin had set up a rationale to take even more territory by force. And he said it was a flagrant violation of international law. And the president also rolled out the U.S. response, which he said is just the beginning - sanctions, export controls, etc.

RASCOE: And Jackie, let me bring you in here. Walk us through the latest on what they're saying about sanctions.

NORTHAM: Right. Well, the sanctions that they announced today - President Biden announced today are taking direct aim at Russia's economy. There will be full blocking sanctions on two large Russian financial institutions - banks, one of which a senior U.S. official described later to reporters as a glorified piggy bank for the Kremlin. You know, collectively, these banks hold more than $80 billion in assets. There are also sanctions that would essentially prevent the Russian government from accessing Western sources of funding, you know, so it can no longer raise money from the West, and sanctions targeting Russia's elite, its oligarchs and their families.

President Biden made clear this is just the first wave of sanctions, that much more punitive ones can and still will be implemented if Putin continues to advance into Ukraine. And, you know, like Mara said, that could prevent Russia from getting, you know, things like semiconductors and the like, you know, strategic products. One other thing - the president also emphasized today that all these moves are in coordination with the allies.

RASCOE: Mara, President Biden said again that he's trying to work out a plan with energy producers to try to limit gas price hikes due to potential sanctions. Let's listen to what he said today.


BIDEN: I want to limit the pain that the American people are feeling at the gas pump. This is critical to me.

RASCOE: How much support does he have domestically for these actions in Europe?

LIASSON: Well, polls show that the American people are generally in agreement with putting sanctions on Ukraine, sending arms to Ukraine, beefing up U.S. troops in NATO countries. They are not in favor of U.S. troops fighting in Ukraine. And, of course, President Biden has ruled that out. But what he just acknowledged, I think, is the bind that he's in. Even if he does everything successfully, holds the Western alliance together, the American people are unlikely to reward him politically because what they're going to see from these actions is more - higher prices at the pump.

Most American people don't know about Ukraine. They don't care about Ukraine. They don't think about how the U.S. and NATO has kept almost three-quarters of a century of stability in Europe, which has allowed for a lot of prosperity in our country and in others. Before that, of course, there were two world wars in Europe in the space of 50 years. So I think Joe Biden has a tremendous challenge on his hands with very little domestic political upside.

RASCOE: So Mara, you know, given all these issues and that everything is so polarized these days, what kind of reaction is Biden getting politically at home from Republicans?

LIASSON: Well, that's pretty interesting. I think for the most part, Congress has showed bipartisan support for sanctions. There have been some criticism from Republicans saying that Biden should have put tougher sanctions on earlier. The House Republican leadership issued a statement today that he slow-walked lethal aid to Ukraine. Of course, this is after the 2016 Republican platform, which, at Donald Trump's request, didn't say anything about supporting Ukraine.

But I think for the most part, they've been supportive. There are some Republican voices who have questioned our support for Ukraine. Josh Hawley has said, why don't we just rule out Ukraine ever being able to join NATO? Of course, that's Putin's demand. And Donald Trump gave an interview today to Fox News where he called Putin's move genius and said Putin was very savvy.

RASCOE: Very quickly, Jackie, let's end with you. Given all that's happened the last couple of days, where do diplomatic efforts stand?

NORTHAM: Well, President Biden said today that he's still holding - you know, hoping that diplomacy is still available. But, you know, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was supposed to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva on Thursday. And today Blinken said he sent Lavrov a letter saying that just won't happen because he says the U.S. will not allow Russia to claim, you know, the pretense of diplomacy while on the path to war.

RASCOE: OK, we'll end it there. That was national political correspondent Mara Liasson and NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam. Thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you.

NORTHAM: Thank you much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.