WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden has moved to ban Russian oil imports, increasing the toll on the Russian economy in retaliation for his invasion of Ukraine, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The move follows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s calls for US and Western officials to halt imports, which had been a glaring omission in the massive sanctions put in place against Russia following the invasion. Energy exports have maintained a steady inflow of cash to Russia despite otherwise severe restrictions on its financial sector.
Biden was expected to announce the move as early as Tuesday, the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter ahead of his remarks. The White House said Biden would announce “actions to continue to hold Russia accountable for its unprovoked and unwarranted war against Ukraine.”
The United States will act alone, but in close consultation with European allies, who are more dependent on Russian energy supplies. European nations have said they plan to reduce their dependence on Russia for their energy needs, but filling the void without crippling their economies will likely take some time. Natural gas from Russia accounts for a third of Europe’s fossil fuel consumption. The United States does not import Russian natural gas.
Biden had explained his reluctance to impose energy sanctions at the start of the conflict two weeks ago, saying he was trying “to limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump.”
Gas prices have been rising for weeks due to the conflict and in anticipation of potential sanctions on the Russian energy sector. The U.S. national average for a gallon of gasoline climbed 45 cents a gallon last week and topped $4.06 on Monday, according to the AAA auto club.
Even before the United States banned, many Western energy companies, including ExxonMobil and BP, moved to cut ties with Russia and limit imports. Shell, which bought a shipment of Russian oil over the weekend, apologized for the move on Tuesday amid international criticism and pledged to halt any further purchases of Russian energy supplies. Preliminary data from the US Department of Energy shows Russian crude imports fell to zero in the last week of February.
In 2021, the United States imported about 245 million barrels of crude oil and petroleum products from Russia, a 24% year-on-year increase, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
“This is an important step to show Russia that the energy is on the table,” said Max Bergmann, a former State Department official who is now a senior fellow at the Democratic Trend Center for American Progress.
Bergmann said it was no surprise that the United States was able to take this step before European nations, which are more dependent on Russian energy.
“It’s all done in coordination, even though the steps aren’t symmetrical,” he said. “We talk to them constantly.”
News of Biden’s decision on Tuesday was first reported by Bloomberg.
Prior to the invasion, Russian oil and gas accounted for more than a third of government revenue. World energy prices surged after the invasion and continued to rise despite coordinated releases of strategic reserves, making Russian exports even more lucrative.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States and its international partners sanctioned Russia’s largest banks, its central bank and finance ministry, and decided to block certain financial institutions from the system SWIFT messaging system for international payments.
But rules issued by the Treasury Department allow Russian energy transactions to continue to go through unauthorized banks that are not based in the United States in an effort to minimize any disruption to global energy markets.
Biden specifically pointed to these Russian energy exclusions as a virtue, as they would help protect American families and businesses from higher prices.
“Our sanctions package that we specifically designed to allow energy payments to continue,” he said. Biden’s actions on Tuesday are unlikely to affect other countries’ energy payments to Russia.
Inflation, at a 40-year high and fueled largely by gasoline prices, has hurt Biden politically as voters head into the November election.
The sanctions have created a possible compromise for the president between his political interests at home and abroad. By invading Ukraine, Russia has potentially fueled supply chain issues and inflation that have been a critical weakness for Biden, who is now trying to balance penalizing Putin and sparing American voters.
While Russian oil represents a small amount of overall US energy imports, the US could substitute Russian crude with imports from other oil-rich countries, but this could prove politically problematic.
Key US senators are warning the Biden administration against any oil import deal with Nicolas Maduro’s regime in Venezuela.
“The Biden administration’s efforts to unite the world against a murderous tyrant in Moscow must not be undermined by backing a dictator under investigation for crimes against humanity in Caracas,” the senator said. Bob Menendez, DN.J., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement Monday evening. “The democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people, like the determination and courage of the Ukrainian people, are worth much more than a few thousand barrels of oil.”