US defends decision to wait for Russia sanctions despite Zelenskiy appeal

WASHINGTON, Feb 20 (Reuters) – The Biden administration on Sunday refused to impose sanctions on Russia ahead of a much-anticipated Russian invasion of Ukraine despite growing criticism from Kiev and its domestic rivals.

The United States and Britain have repeatedly warned in recent days that Russia is about to launch a military invasion of Ukraine, a plan Russia denies. Sanctioning Vladimir Putin’s government before it invades would only ensure that such a crisis happens immediately, US officials say.

“The purpose of sanctions in the first place is to try to deter Russia from going to war. As soon as you trigger them, that deterrence disappears,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the “State of the Union” from CNN.

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The West has threatened Moscow with severe economic sanctions if it goes ahead with an invasion that they say will punish state banks and Russian oligarchs, curb exports and cripple the economy. Read more

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and a growing number of critics say that if the United States and its allies are so certain that Putin plans to invade, they should apply sanctions now.

“You tell me 100% that there will be war in a few days. What are you waiting for?” a frustrated Zelenskiy asked the audience at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, repeating an earlier call for the West to impose sanctions on Russia now rather than later.

“We won’t need your sanctions after a bombing, or after our state is shot, or if we have no more borders, if we have no more economy, or if parts of our state are occupied,” Zelenskiy said.

Speaking to reporters in Munich, US Vice President Kamala Harris said the sanctions to be imposed would be among the “largest if not the strongest” in history, but echoed Blinken’s view that which there was still a way to prevent Putin from invading.

“We agreed that the deterrent effect of these sanctions is still significant, particularly because – also remember – we still sincerely hope there is a diplomatic way out of this moment.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz, speaking on Fox News on Sunday, questioned whether the United States had done all it could to stop Putin. “Not remotely, and tragically, Europe is on the brink of war because of the weakness, the recklessness of Joe Biden,” he said.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby argued that sanctioning Russia now would trigger an invasion.

“If you’re punishing someone for something they haven’t done yet, then you might as well go ahead and do it,” John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, told Fox News on Sunday.

On Sunday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the United States and Britain would cut off Russian businesses’ access to US dollars and pounds if the Kremlin ordered the invasion. He said Western sanctions would go much further than he had previously suggested in public.

(This story reposts to clarify in paragraphs 10 and 12 that Kirby and Cruz spoke on Fox News on Sunday)

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Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kyiv; Editing by Heather Timmons and Mark Porter

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