Biden has previously said he believes Putin is a war criminal, and this week called for a trial to hold Moscow accountable. Still, the process to prosecute war crimes is complex and lengthy, and questions remain about how and when such accountability could be delivered.
US Attorney General Merrick Garland said Wednesday that the Justice Department is assisting with evidence gathering for possible war crimes trials related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He said that he had spoken with French and other European officials about the collection of evidence that is currently taking place.
And Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday that the United States was “working to document” war crimes with the aim of providing the information to relevant agencies.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan also said this week that the United States would seek information from intelligence services, Ukrainian eyewitnesses, international organizations and global media interviews to build a case.
Biden praised Ukraine on Wednesday for waging a fight against Russia that prevented him from taking the country’s capital.
“Thanks to the courage, determination and fighting spirit of the Ukrainian people, Russia has already failed in its initial war goals. Russia wanted to take the capital of Ukraine, kyiv, and overthrow its democracy and elected government. Today, kyiv still stands and that government presides,” Biden said.
But he warned that the violence may not end soon.
“The fight is far from over,” he said. “This war could go on for a long time.”
The “total lockdown” sanctions on Russia’s largest financial institution, Sberbank, and its largest private bank, Alfa Bank, are meant to further cripple Russia’s economy. They will ban transactions with any US financial institution and freeze assets held by banks in the US.
“They won’t be able to touch any of your money. They won’t be able to do any business here,” Biden said.
Sberbank owns almost a third of the total assets of Russia’s banking sector, and the White House says that with Wednesday’s sanctions, more than two-thirds of the Russian banking sector is now blocked.
“The sad reality is that Putin’s war will make it difficult for Russians to travel abroad. It means your debit cards may not work. They may only have the option to buy fake phones and knockoff clothes, store shelves may be empty,” a senior administration official told reporters.
“The reality is that the country is falling into economic, financial and technological isolation and at this rate it will return to the Soviet-style standards of the 1980s,” the official continued.
By targeting Putin’s two adult daughters, the United States hopes to freeze any assets the Russian president may be hiding with them, according to the senior administration official. Without detailing which of Putin’s assets might be hidden with Mariya Putina and Katerina Tikhonova, the official said the practice was common among the Russian elite.
Members of the Russian Security Council, including former Russian President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, are also being singled out for individual sanctions. The United States has already sanctioned more than 140 oligarchs and their relatives and more than 400 Russian government officials, the senior official said.
“Look, these oligarchs and their families are not allowed to hold on to their wealth in Europe and America and keep these hundreds of millions of dollars worth of yachts, their luxurious vacation homes while children in Ukraine are being killed, displaced from their homes every day,” Biden said in his speech.
The new sanctions will exclude such individuals from the US banking system and freeze any assets held in the United States.
The White House also announced a ban on new investment in Russia to be implemented in line with the G7 and the EU. The ban will be implemented with an executive order signed by President Joe Biden.
And the United States will also apply full blocking sanctions on major critical Russian state-owned companies, to be announced by the Treasury Department on Thursday. The official also highlighted Tuesday’s announcement that the Treasury Department has blocked Russia from making debt payments with dollars stored in US banks.
While the United States and its allies have imposed the most extensive sanctions regime in history against a country the size of Russia, officials acknowledge that it has done little to change Putin’s calculus. The threat of sanctions did not deter the invasion itself, and the accumulation of economic sanctions has not brought Russia closer to a withdrawal or a negotiated settlement since.
Pressed on the effectiveness of sanctions in ending Putin’s war in Ukraine, the senior official tried to underscore the effect they are having on life in Russia, saying Putin will eventually have to deal with his people.
“Even an autocrat like Putin has a social contract with the Russian people. He took away their freedom in exchange for promising stability, so he is not giving them stability,” the official said.
“The question is really not so much: What can we do and when will that take effect? I think it is: What is the end here for Putin? What is he playing for?” the official said. “This is very clearly becoming a failure for him and at some point he’s going to have to acknowledge that reality.”
This story has been updated with additional reports.