Numerologists will be fascinated that Joe Biden began his Ukraine speech on Tuesday at 2.22pm on 22.2.22. The US president, however, was more concerned with his own calculation of the economic and political costs of overreacting – or underreacting – to Russia’s provocations.
Biden thought he would be remembered as the pandemic president, but finds himself commanding the arsenal of democracy in what could become the biggest military assault in Europe since the second world war. The crisis escalated on Monday after Vladimir Putin recognised two breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine as independent entities, an apparent pretext for invasion.
“Who in the Lord’s name does Putin think gives him the right to declare new so-called countries on territory that belonged to his neighbours?” Biden demanded in the east room. “This is a flagrant violation of international law, and it demands a firm response from the international community.”
But the response he delivered did not go as far as some in Washington would have liked, receiving a cautious welcome from Democrats and failing to satisfy Republicans who accuse Biden of appeasement. It was a shot across Putin’s bows but also the work of an administration keeping some of its powder dry.
Biden announced sanctions that target VEB (Russia’s state development bank) and the Russian military bank, as well as the country’s sovereign debt and five Russian elites and their families.
On the last point, the elites “share the corrupt gains of the Kremlin policies and should share in the pain as well”, Biden said. These oligarchs, who live the high life in London and elsewhere, represent a potential Achilles’ heel for Putin.
Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democratic senator, told the Guardian last week: “I think he depends on having good relations with the big thieving oligarchs because if they all conspired to defeat him, he’d have to do a lot of oligarch…