Wednesday’s White House press briefing wasn’t smooth sailing for Press Secretary Jen Psaki and deputy national security adviser Daleep Singh with tough questions ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, so it was only natural they came back Thursday and faced hardballs on Biden’s messaging flip-flop on use of sanctions and the refusal to apply them at all to Russian energy industry (perhaps its number one asset).
Just as she did hours earlier with President Biden, ABC’s Cecilia Vega chose to actually hold the administration’s feet to the fire, first asking Singh: “If Putin takes Kyiv, does that trigger additional sanctions, specifically that scenario?”
After Singh said he wasn’t “going to speculate on particular hypotheticals,” Vega sought clarification on Biden’s implication that we should all wait a month to see how the sanctions affect Russia: “What happens in the meantime? Russia is taking over parts of Ukraine — major parts of Ukraine as we speak, so the world just sits back and watches that happen until these sanctions take effect?”
Singh avoided answering her question except to tell the reporter, “In lengthy reply (alongside signs to watch out for in Russia’s economy),” “we can’t dictate Putin’s actions,”So “[w]hat we can do is what’s within our control and to make sure this is going to be a strategic failure for Russia.”
CBS’s Weijia Jiang used her two questions to further expose the significance of Biden downplaying the level of deterrence sanctions provide after he and his team spent weeks saying the opposite (click “expand”):
JIANG: For weeks now, administration officials repeatedly said, yourself included, that these sanctions are meant to deter and prevent Putin from moving forward — from acting. Could you please help us to understand the reason the President stated today that nobody expected sanctions to stop anything happening? And then a secondly — a quick one on Putin sanctions, without talking about when you might trigger them, can you help us understand what harm they would do to him personally if you were to sanction Putin?
SINGH: Let’s see, on the first question. We don’t normally engage in hypotheticals at this podium. But let’s try it. There are a few possibilities that could have been if we hadn’t released our whole package of financial sanctions so quickly. Number one, President Putin might have said, look, people are not serious about diplomacy…Secondly, he could look at it as a sunk cost. In other words, President Putin could think, “I’ve already paid the price. Why don’t I take what I paid for, which is Ukraine’s freedom?” So, that’s — that’s what we wanted to avoid. Look, ultimately — ultimately the goal of our sanctions is to make this a strategic failure for Russia…Strategy success in the 21st century is not about a physical landgrab of territory. This is exactly what Putin did. This century’s strategic power can be measured and used by both economic strength and technological sophistication. It also depends on your story, your beliefs, your history, and what you stand for. Is it possible to draw in ideas, talent, and goodwill. Russia will fail on each one of these measures.
JIANG: Is it right to assume that no one anticipated the sanctions to stop anything? That is what you expected, surely?
SINGH: Look, we — we signaled as clearly as we could what was coming if Russia proceeded with an invasion. You know, as I mentioned before, economic costs of this severity generally matter to any leader because of the effect it has on — on his people’s living standards. Putin’s decision in this particular case was a mistake.
A fairly reliable straight-shooter, Reuters’s Steve Holland got Singh to offer an all-but definitive answer on how Russia’s biggest export won’t be touched:
HOLLAND: Targeting the Russian energy sector is completely off the table. Daleep, is that really what you’re saying?
SINGH: What I’m saying is that our measures were not designed to disrupt — in any way — the current flow of energy from Russia to the world. We have now also stated that we will block Russia from accessing cutting-edge technology. It can be applied across many different sectors.
Skipping ahead to Psaki’s portion, Fox’s Peter Doocy also pressed on energy, wondering whether Biden would alter his energy policies to allow for greater domestic production and if the President “would…ever consider ordering U.S. companies to stop importing Russian oil.”
Not surprisingly, Psaki emphasized he’s not changing his mind (click “expand”):
DOOCY: There’s this talk about a possible forecast for financial pain, particularly at the gas pump —
DOOCY: — for Americans. Today, the President stated that it is unlikely that this will last for long. Would he try to ensure that by lifting some of the restrictions that he’s put in place on the energy industry, or rethinking some projects like the Keystone pipeline?
PSAKI: The Keystone pipeline has stopped flowing. I am not certain how that could solve any problems. There’s plenty of oil leases not being tapped into by oil companies, so you should talk to them about that and why. But what the President’s talking about is we certainly understand — and he said this today — right — maybe in response to your question, I don’t remember — but if there’s an invasion of another country by a big country, there’s going to be impacts on the markets, right? And we certainly anticipated and we anticipate that as it relates to the global oil market as well, so that’s why the President, for weeks now, has been engaging with a range of big global suppliers — some in the Middle East, others — to see what we can do to ensure there’s supply out there in the market to reduce the impact on the American people.
DOOCY – The U.S. has hundreds of thousand barrels of oil per day and is one of Russia’s most important customers. The President might consider ordering U.S. firms to stop buying Russian oil.
PSAKI: Peter, at this time I can’t predict that. Some significant sentience was announced today. Our objective is to — to ensure there is the greatest economic pain on Russia — not on the Russian people, but on President Putin, and to minimize the impacts on American people, including companies here in the United States.
Doocy, however, asked Biden if he would answer his energy questions. “Biden send U.S. troops in on a rescue mission” to save Ukrainian President Zelensky if he’s “in danger of being killed or captured and put on some sort of a show trial.”
Psaki did not respond to the request.
Psaki tried to get out of the room but she was unable to do so because the other members were asking questions. New York Post’s Steven NelsonFormer PlayboyAuthor and carnival barker Brian KaremWhether the government believes Putin will invade any other ex-Soviet satellite countries beyond Ukraine.
Psaki told them that she wouldn’t “make a prediction,” but there’s reason to believe Putin “has grander ambitions in Ukraine, hence the military campaign is continuing.”
To see the relevant transcript from the February 24 briefing (including questions from NPR’s Franco Ordoñez about exempting oil companies and The New York Times’s Zolan Kanno-Youngs on Biden’s Freudian slip), click here.