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Could the U.S. really cripple the Russian economy like Biden warns?


NATO officials meet with a delegation from Russia tomorrow in hopes of heading off an invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces now gathered near the border. President Biden has ruled out sending U.S. troops to Ukraine. Instead, he's warning of crippling sanctions. NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam looks at whether the U.S. could actually bring Russia to its knees.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Biden administration officials have been fanning out with a pointed message to Moscow. If you invade Ukraine, we're going after your economy. Here's Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday.


ANTONY BLINKEN: And we've been clear with Russia about what it will face if it continues on this path, including economic measures that we haven't used before, massive consequences.

NORTHAM: Daniel Fried helped craft sanctions against Russia after it invaded Ukraine in 2014. He says the Biden administration is putting sanctions in the window, letting Moscow know they'll be implemented quickly if Putin takes more Ukrainian territory.

DANIEL FRIED: You don't want to tell the Russians exactly what it is. But you want to tell them enough that they know will hurt.

NORTHAM: The Kremlin is likely well aware of what it could face - more targeting of individuals and companies. But Fried, now with the Atlantic Council, says the U.S. could do more.

FRIED: Go after the high-tech industry. Go after the cyber industry. Go after semiconductors. You figure out what they can't get except through American or G7 technology, and you slam them.

NORTHAM: But Maria Shagina with the Finnish Institute of International Affairs says withholding U.S.-made technology is unlikely to create the short, sharp shock needed to deter an invasion.

MARIA SHAGINA: This is something of a long-term impact, and it is something in the future. This is something that I don't think will change Russia's calculus or Putin's calculus, for that matter.

NORTHAM: The U.S. could kick Russia off SWIFT, the messaging system for international money transfers. The Russians have come up with their own system to circumvent SWIFT, but it's slow and cumbersome. Shagina says what would be more potent is sanctioning Russian banks.

SHAGINA: You want to avoid collateral damage on the general public. So you would like to go probably for banks which usually is in charge of projects - ambitious projects directly supported by the Russian government.

NORTHAM: The sanctions of 2014 made it more difficult for Russian individuals and companies to do business, but they didn't stop Moscow from issuing new threats against Ukraine now.

JEFFREY SCHOTT: If you want to be impactful and be disruptive, you have to hit energy companies.

NORTHAM: Jeffrey Schott is a sanctions expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He says the U.S. could press Germany to stop the opening of the NordStream2 gas pipeline from Russia to Europe. That, Schott says, would hit Russia's state-owned energy company Gazprom hard.

SCHOTT: Another thing we could do - we have sanctions against some of the Russian firms engaged in energy exploration. And we could enforce them more effectively.

NORTHAM: Konstantin Sonin, a University of Chicago economist, is now in Moscow. He says Russian industrial leaders are likely letting the Kremlin know they're concerned about potential damage.

KONSTANTIN SONIN: They will say, do not do this. Sanctions will hurt us, especially gas and oil industry. The problem is that the Kremlin might be not very interested in what industries say.

NORTHAM: Sonin says Moscow doesn't appear to care about the threat of sanctions despite all the warnings from the Biden administration.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUTEMATH SONG, "YOU ARE MINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam
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.