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President Biden announces new sanctions against Russia. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Despite bold talk from top administration officials, there's little reason to think the Russia sanctions package President Biden announced Thursday will do anything to alter Russian President Vladimir Putin's behavior or calculus.

Why it matters: While it's true some elements of the package — namely, the targeting of Russia's sovereign debt — represent significant punitive measures against Moscow, it leaves plenty of wiggle room for the Russian president.

  • White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended the action, telling reporters: "We can't predict what the impact will be, but we still believe that when there's unacceptable behavior, we should put consequences in place."

Between the lines: Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had known and dealt with Putin for years while running Exxon Mobil, used to tell colleagues sanctions did little if anything to deter the Russian leader.

  • It's hard to argue against Tillerson's case.
  • The U.S. and its international allies have imposed some form of sanctions against Russia every year since 2014, when Putin's "little green men" first appeared in Ukraine.
  • Since then, Russia has continued to occupy Crimea and eastern Ukraine; propped up the brutal Assad regime in Syria; hacked U.S. and other Western elections; crushed protests at home; and attempted to assassinate dissidents on foreign soil, among other things.

Yes, but: Where Thursday's sanctions do break new ground is in the cyber realm.

  • The U.S. government formally accused Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service of the SolarWinds hack and identified its collaborators in painstaking detail, as German security expert Thomas Rid notes in an illuminating Twitter thread.
  • And a ban on U.S. banks directly buying Russian government bonds could create a "broader chilling effect" that will weaken the ruble and have negative implications for inflation and economic growth, a senior administration official told reporters.
  • But the ability for investors to continue buying Russian bonds on the secondary market diminishes the overall effect of the restrictions — reflecting Biden's desire to send a clear message to the Russians without taking it too far.

What's missing: Biden notably did not announce sanctions targeting Nord Stream 2, a nearly complete Russian-German pipeline that will bypass Ukraine and deliver Russian gas straight to the European Union.

  • On Thursday, Biden described Nord Stream 2 as a complicated issue that remains "an issue in play," and that he opposes the pipeline. The reality is nobody expected him to sanction an ally — Germany — which is the type of action that might actually stop the pipeline from being completed.

What they're saying: "The Ukrainians have not received any assurances from Washington that all possible measures will be taken to stop the pipeline from being built," a source close to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Axios.

  • And the list of sanctioned Russians does not target any oligarchs. Jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny has said targeting the oligarchs would be more likely to deter Putin because of the vast wealth they hold on his behalf.

Go deeper

Updated Apr 15, 2021 - World

U.S. imposes sweeping sanctions targeting Russian economy

Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

The Biden administration announced it will sanction dozens of Russian officials and entities, expel 10 diplomats from the U.S., and set new restrictions on buying Russian sovereign debt in response to the massive SolarWinds hack of federal agencies and interference in the 2020 election.

Why it matters: The sweeping acts of retaliation are aimed at imposing heavy economic costs on Russia, after years of sanctions that have failed to deter an increasingly aggressive and authoritarian President Vladimir Putin.

Apr 15, 2021 - World

U.S. says Manafort associate passed sensitive polling data to Russian intelligence

Via FBI

The U.S. government has sanctioned Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian-Ukrainian political consultant indicted in the Mueller investigation in 2018, for carrying out election influence operations on behalf of Russian intelligence services.

The big picture: The Senate Intelligence Committee's report on 2016 Russian election interference assessed that Kilimnik, who worked with former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort as a lobbyist for the pro-Russia president of Ukraine, is a Russian intelligence officer.

Intel officials have "low to moderate" confidence in reports of Russian bounties on U.S. troops

U.S. troops near Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2014. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

U.S. intelligence officials have "low to moderate confidence" in reports that surfaced last year that Russia had offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, according to The Guardian.

Why it matters: The news comes as the Biden administration unveiled a spate of sanctions against Russian officials and entities on Thursday. The bounty reports, however, were not a factor in the decision to pass sanctions.