The urgent discussions underway among top aides to President Joe Biden and between European allies of the US came as efforts to evacuate civilians from Ukrainian cities were stymied by Russian shelling and as Ukraine’s President pleaded with the West to do more.
Top US national security officials said they were hurriedly seeking ways to further punish Putin while providing support to the outgunned Ukrainian military.
White House and other Western officials have made plain over the past days they expect the coming stretch of the war to be its bloodiest as Putin grows frustrated at Russia’s slower-than-expected advances and seeks ways to grind ahead.
“I think we have to be prepared for this to last for some time,” Blinken said. “But just winning a battle is not winning the war.”
Ban on Russian oil imports
Biden, who is spending the weekend at his home in Delaware, convened a phone call Saturday with top members of his administration to discuss a potential ban on Russian oil imports, Blinken said, a step that has been under consideration at the White House since last last week.
“We are now talking to our European partners and allies to look in a coordinated way at the prospect of banning the import of Russian oil, while making sure that there is a still an appropriate supply of oil on world markets,” Blinken said. “That’s a very active discussion as we speak.”
Biden has faced pressure from Democrats and Republicans alike to impose tougher restrictions on Russia’s energy sector, which could prove far more destructive than the economic sanctions applied by the West to date.
Russian oil imports to the US comprise a relatively small percentage of the country’s overall supply, and they have been declining sharply in recent weeks. There is little doubt Russia would be able to sell those supplies to other countries, including China, if the US stops buying them.
Still, the step would be significant, particularly since any sanctions applied to Russia’s energy sector were once considered virtually off the table given the potential ripples on the global oil market. So far, the US and Europe have mostly avoided major steps that could impact Russian energy, though the US did ban the import into Russia of equipment needed for oil and gas extraction.
“It makes no sense whatsoever to continue to buy oil from Russia that they use to fund this war and this murderous campaign that their undertaking,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida told Tapper on CNN on Sunday.
White House officials are now seriously reviewing what a ban might do to domestic gas prices, which have hit new highs as the war in Ukraine causes oil to spike in price.
“We are looking at options that we can take right now, if we were to cut the US consumption of Russian energy — but what’s really most important is that we maintain a steady supply of global energy,” Council of Economic Advisers Chair Cecilia Rouse told reporters at a Friday press briefing.
White House officials have said Biden is unlikely to take steps targeting Russia’s energy sector without explicit support from Europe, which is far more dependent on Russian oil and gas than the United States. Speaking Sunday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said work was underway to reduce that dependence.
“It’s very clear that, for us, there is a strong strategy now to say we have to get rid of the dependency of fossil fuels from Russia,” she told Tapper on CNN. “Therefore, we are just discussing in the European Union a strategic approach, a plan, how to accelerate the investment in the renewables, how to diversify our energy supply.”
Possible war crimes
As officials review a potential ban on Russian oil, there is a parallel effort underway to assess whether the targeting of civilians underway in Ukraine would constitute a war crime.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said Sunday the US was “working with our partners to collect and provide information” on potential war crimes.
Accounts from the ground in Ukraine, including by CNN reporters, have found civilian areas that were shelled. Ukraine has claimed thousands of civilians have been killed, though other estimates — including from the UN — have come in lower.
“We have seen very credible reports of deliberate attacks on civilians, which would constitute a war crime. We have seen very credible reports about the use of certain weapons,” Blinken said Sunday on CNN. “And what we’re doing right now is documenting all of this, putting it all together, looking at it, and making sure that, as people and the appropriate organizations and institutions investigate whether war crimes have been or are being committed, that we can support whatever they’re doing.”
Polish fighter jets
Short of that, Zelensky asked for American support in facilitating the transfer of Soviet-era fighter jets from Eastern European nations to Ukraine, where pilots have been trained to fly them and could use them to control the skies.
“We are working with Poland as we speak to see if we can backfill anything that they provide to the Ukrainians,” Blinken said Sunday. “But we also want to see if we can be helpful in making sure that, whatever they provide to Ukrainians, something goes to them to make up for any gap in the security for Poland that might result.”
Thomas-Greenfield also made clear the US had “not in any way opposed the Polish government providing these jets to Ukraine.”