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Threat of Russia invasion looms, Congress divided on sanction strategy

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Top U.S. and NATO officials have warned Russia may plan to invade Ukraine in the coming days, but U.S. lawmakers remain divided on whether the White House strategy to use severe sanctions as a deterrent is working. 

“I can’t imagine why President Biden will not step forward and take an action,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., told Fox News Saturday. “It appears that he is waiting for things to escalate for lives to be lost, property to be damaged.”

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Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) questions Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri during a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing.
(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The senator, who sits on the Armed Services Committee, argued that “sanctions work.”

“One of the things he could have done was to move in and have Russia removed from the SWIFT international banking system. Hitting those banks would be the appropriate thing to do,” she argued. 

Blackburn’s comments came one day after Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics, Daleep Singh, told reporters that removing Moscow from the SWIFT banking system was likely not going to be in the “initial” sanction package if Russia invades Ukraine.

“We have other severe measures we can take that our allies and partners are ready to take in lockstep with us, and that don’t have the same spillover effects,” he said. “But we always will monitor these options, and we’ll revise our judgments as time goes on.”

Removing Russia from the international banking system has been floated for months as the Kremlin has stepped up its aggression toward Kyiv.

SWIFT allows banks worldwide to securely and efficiently communicate with one another, and facilitates the transfer of “trillions of dollars in cross-border payments,” according to Radio Free Europe – effectively cutting Russia off from top financial networks. 

People take part in a military exercise for civilians conducted by veterans of the Ukrainian National Guard Azov battalion in Kharkiv, Ukraine February 19, 2022. REUTERS/Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy

People take part in a military exercise for civilians conducted by veterans of the Ukrainian National Guard Azov battalion in Kharkiv, Ukraine February 19, 2022. REUTERS/Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy

But not everyone in Congress agreed that hitting Russia with immediate tough sanctioning was the right move. 

A bipartisan bill described as the “mother of all sanctions” would have slapped immediate sanctions on Russian officials as well as additional penalties should Moscow invade Kyiv.

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But despite support from both Republicans and Democrats, resistance by the Biden administration to hit Russia preemptively coupled with calls for tougher actions by the GOP left the bill paralyzed in the upper chamber. 

Instead, on Thursday the Senate opted to introduce a resolution – which is not legally binding – to show its united front against Russian aggression. 

Member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., told Fox News the move was “symbolic.”

“The message we’re trying to send right now is that we believe that sanctions absolutely could have at least made him think twice. But we’re past that point,” he said.

Now they are looking to “make very clear to Mr. Putin that his cost long-term is going to be damning in terms of his long-term viability.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu at the Kremlin, in Moscow on February 14, 2022. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu at the Kremlin, in Moscow on February 14, 2022. 
((Photo by ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images))

Rounds said sanctions will be hard on European allies and the U.S. business community, but said it will be “devastating to Russia and to Mr. Putin and his friends.”

Pennsylvania Democrat Rep. Matt Cartwright, Member of House Appropriations Committee, backed the White House’s strategy when it comes to holding the threat of sanctions over Putin’s head.

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“It’s clear that President Biden is purposefully vague about what the exact specifics of the sanctions will be,” Cartwright told Fox News. “[Putin] wants to return to the evil empire. 

“He thinks – like many of his predecessors – like a chess game. You tell him exactly what sanctions you’re going to pose – he’s going to calculate them. He’s going to have time to evaluate whether he can sustain that burden,” he added.

Cartwright echoed comments made by NATO and U.S. lawmakers who attended the Munich Security Conference Saturday and said Putin’s aggression has only strengthened ties he was hoping to weaken.

He wasn’t “banking on the fortitude of the Ukrainian people,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said. “These people are ready to fight…and they are going to make Russia hurt.”

Cartwright also argued that Putin likely wasn’t expecting the unity that NATO has shown during this crisis given its “disarray” over the last several years. 

“They stand shoulder to shoulder,” he said. “They are lining up on the borders of Ukraine.”

Some 450 cadets of the Odessa State University of Internal Affairs, the Military Academy of Odessa and the Institute of the Naval Forces of Ukraine, form the coat of arms of Ukraine to show unity, in Odessa, southern Ukraine, on February 19, 2022 (Photo by Oleksandr GIMANOV / AFP) (Photo by OLEKSANDR GIMANOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Some 450 cadets of the Odessa State University of Internal Affairs, the Military Academy of Odessa and the Institute of the Naval Forces of Ukraine, form the coat of arms of Ukraine to show unity, in Odessa, southern Ukraine, on February 19, 2022 (Photo by Oleksandr GIMANOV / AFP) (Photo by OLEKSANDR GIMANOV/AFP via Getty Images)

NATO has not only promised severe economic hardship if Putin violates Ukraine’s sovereignty, but has taken steps to protect surrounding NATO nations by deploying thousands of troops to Poland and Romania.

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The Pennsylvania Democrat said NATO’s biggest concern is that Putin may not stop with Ukraine if he is looking to reunite the former Soviet Union. 

But Cartwright also argued the threat of an inactive Nord Stream 2 pipeline and uncertainties under threat of immense sanctioning may push Putin to realize he may has “bitten off more than he can chew.”

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