“This will ensure that these banks are disconnected from the international financial system and will impair their ability to operate globally,” they wrote in a joint statement released by the White House, also committing to “restrictive measures that prevent the Russian Central Bank from deploying its international reserves in a way that undermines the impact of our sanctions,” and by restricting the sale of “golden passports” that allow Russian oligarchs to avoid the brunt of sanctions already imposed.
US and European officials have also discussed targeting the Russian Central Bank with sanctions, according to two people familiar with the talks, an unprecedented step for an economy the size of Russia.
No final decision has been made, the people said, and the penalty structure being discussed remains unclear.
But the moves have led to a dramatic escalation in attempts by the West to isolate and punish Putin, and have appeared to be coming to fruition quickly over the past few hours and days. At a press conference on Thursday, Biden explained why he avoided taking Russia out of SWIFT or sanctioning Putin personally. Less than 48 hours later, he had done both.
Targeting the central bank would strike at the heart of Putin’s years-long effort to protect his economy from sanctions.
Russia has accumulated the fourth largest foreign currency reserves in the world at more than $630 billion while turning away from US dollar holdings. Both measures provide a buffer against U.S. sanctions, even though the sweeping package of measures launched this week has already created significant disruption in Russia’s economy.
While talks over Russia’s central bank have been described as still in their infancy, their consideration underscores the scale of the drive to dramatically increase sanctions in Washington and Brussels.
A senior Biden administration official, on a call with reporters, heralded Saturday’s joint decision as an “unprecedented act of global sanctions coordination.”
“We collectively plan to impose measures to ensure that Russia cannot use its central bank reserves to support its currency, and thereby undermine the impact of our sanctions,” the official said. “It will show that Russia’s supposed sanctions protection of its economy is a myth. Russia’s war chest of over $600 billion of foreign reserves is only powerful if Putin can use it, and without being able to buy the ruble from Western financial institutions, for example, Putin’s central bank will lose the ability to offset the impact of our sanctions.”
Meanwhile, the expulsion of Russian banks from the SWIFT network, the official said, would make transactions with “de-SWIFTed” banks virtually impossible, prompting most banks to “just stop doing transactions” with targeted people.
But, pressed to know if the Russian Central Bank was on the list of banks to be removed from SWIFT, the official said that the administration and the partners were “still in the process of finalizing this specific execution modality for the sanctions of the Central bank”.
Yet sanctions against the Russian Central Bank would prevent Moscow from strengthening the ruble and offset the sanctions already in place, “effectively disarming the Russian fortress”, undermining its massive war chest.
In addition, the administration hopes that the actions against the Central Bank will effectively cripple the Russian military campaign in Ukraine.
“To be clear, this is a sad result for the people of Ukraine, the people of Russia and many others,” the official said. “That’s not where we want it to be. But that’s Putin’s choice of war. And only Putin can decide what additional cost he’s willing to bear. The United States and our allies and partners are united and will continue to impose costs.”
The United States and its allies have already imposed major sanctions targeting the Russian financial sector, including major sanctions against Russia’s largest lenders.
The United States and other countries also announced on Saturday the launch next week of a “transatlantic task force” to “ensure the effective implementation of our financial sanctions by identifying and freezing the assets of people and sanctioned companies that exist in our jurisdictions”.
The senior Biden administration official said the task force would effectively target Putin-aligned oligarchs and their overseas financial assets, going after “their yachts, their luxury apartments, their money and their ability to send their children to luxury colleges in the West”.
As part of the announcement, they also promised to step up their efforts to fight misinformation.
“We stand with the people of Ukraine in this dark hour. Even beyond the actions we are announcing today, we stand ready to take further steps to hold Russia to account for its attack on Ukraine.”
The statement still leaves the actual technical details – and the specific Russian lenders that will be cut from SWIFT – unclear, with US and European officials still working out the final details of the action.
But the commitment to take action that just days ago seemed out of place due to European objections marks a purposeful but seismic escalation in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Biden and his aides pointed out how complicated it would be to block Russia from SWIFT, noting that the United States cannot act unilaterally. “That’s not the position the rest of Europe wants to take,” Biden told reporters on Thursday.
But since Biden’s press conference announcing new sanctions against Russia for his unprovoked attack, the administration has appeared to come closer to that position as other European allies have begun to lend their support.
The administration has discussed the issue with the Federal Reserve, which would have a stake in any decision, according to an official.
The White House had faced calls from Ukraine and US lawmakers in Congress for Russia to be removed from SWIFT after Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on Thursday. The UK, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia were among the first countries to support Kiev’s calls to cut Russia off the grid.
On Saturday, Germany, which had previously warned of the “massive impact” on German businesses if Russia was banned from SWIFT, signaled its support for restrictions in one form or another.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and German Economics Minister Robert Habeck said in a joint tweet that they were “under high pressure to avoid collateral damage during the decoupling (Russia) of SWIFT so that “it’s reaching the right people. What we need is a focused and functional constraint program from SWIFT.”
Earlier today, Italy indicated it would also support taking steps to expel Russia from SWIFT after Prime Minister Mario Draghi told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that “Italy fully supports the line European Union sanctions against Russia, including those involving SWIFT, and must continue to do so.”
Draghi’s comments were particularly noteworthy given the exposure of the Italian economy to energy.
An administration official said earlier that additional sanctions were likely to come if Kyiv, the beleaguered Ukrainian capital, fell.
A White House official told CNN that “as the president and administration officials have made clear, we are focused on coordinating with allies and partners to impose additional costs on Russian President Vladimir Putin. for his war of choice,” but declined to comment further.
Removing Russia from SWIFT would harm Russia but also major European economies and impact energy exports to the continent.
This would make international financial transactions more difficult, shocking Russian companies and their foreign customers, especially buyers of US dollar-denominated oil and gas exports.
This story has been updated with additional developments and background information.
CNN’s Charles Riley, Veronica Stracqualursi and Inke Kappelle contributed to this report.