WASHINGTON — Twice in the last week, the U.S. announced new sanctions against Russia and Saudi Arabia over what it called human rights abuses. Twice, critics said President Joe Biden pulled his punches.
Financial markets and rights groups were unimpressed by Biden’s move Tuesday to sanction senior Russian law enforcement officials over the poisoning and imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. That followed similar criticism when Biden declined to target Saudi Arabia’s crown prince after releasing an intelligence report accusing him of approving the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
U.S. lawmakers from both parties also knocked the Biden administration last week after it held off on sanctions against German entities involved in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, despite arguing that the project undermines European security.
Critics argue that Biden has set the wrong tone early in his administration. After accusing his predecessor Donald Trump of weakness toward autocrats, they say Biden has failed to match his rhetoric with action against leaders like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin. They say the U.S. could sanction Russia’s oligarchs or its sovereign debt, and fault him for declining to punish the crown prince.
“They castigated Trump for being weak on Russia, and they said they would be tough, and they’re doing the same,” said James Carafano, the director of foreign policy studies at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. “The question is: What are you practically going to do?”
The Russia sanctions announced on Tuesday hit individuals with travel restrictions and asset freezes — actions that won’t have a big impact because those targeted probably wouldn’t travel to America or have assets in U.S. accounts. It was the same with the Saudi sanctions. After releasing the report that said Prince Mohammed authorized the killing of Khashoggi, Biden declined to target him directly.
That approach was a disappointment to those who believe the Saudi crown prince deserves direct punishment for his role in Khashoggi’s murder, as it was to Navalny’s supporters. On Tuesday, Russia’s ruble rebounded, erasing earlier declines, after the narrow scope of the U.S. and European Union penalties became clear.
“That the U.S. and EU have imposed sanctions on people who were involved in jailing Navalny is wonderful and cool,” Maria Pevchykh, a close ally of the detained Russian activist, wrote on Twitter. “But the most painful sanctions, which neither Europe nor the U.S. imposed, are the ones against oligarchs.”
The Biden administration counters that the criticism is unwarranted. On a call with reporters on Tuesday, a senior official described the Navalny sanctions as a first step and suggested more would follow in three areas: Russia’s election interference; the SolarWinds hack that targeted the U.S. government and hundreds of American companies; and reports that Russia offered bounties for the killing of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
Officials have also emphasized how they are working in tandem with other countries. They argue that by doing so — whether in confronting Russia, China or Iran — the U.S. actions gain strength and effectiveness from joint action, leaving the targeted nations isolated.