Washington’s latest concern: The dangers of cornering Putin

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Indeed, on Thursday President Biden announced expanded sanctions against Russia’s oligarchic class. Many of those named – including Dmitri S. Peskov, Putin’s spokesman and one of his close advisers – are among his most influential defenders and among the beneficiaries of the system he created.

Mr Biden, who read a prepared statement and asked no questions, said the sanctions had “already had a profound impact”.

A few hours after he spoke, S&P downgraded Russia’s credit rating to CCC-, the rating agency said in a statement. That’s well below the junk bond level at which Russia was rated days after the invasion, and just two notches above a warning that the country was defaulting.

It suggested that Putin’s efforts to make his economy “sanction-proof” had largely failed. And for now, at least, the Russian leader has no discernible way out other than declaring a ceasefire or withdrawing his forces — steps in which he has so far shown no interest.

At a White House news briefing Thursday afternoon, Jen Psaki, the press secretary, said she was not aware of any efforts to show Mr Putin a way out. “I think right at this moment they are marching towards Kyiv with a convoy and continue to take allegedly barbaric steps against the people of Ukraine. So now is not the time to offer sanctions reduction options.”

But a senior State Department official, asked about the debates within the government about the risks ahead, said there were nuances in the government’s approach that hinted at potential defaults for the Russian leader.

Mr. Biden’s policy, the official said, is not a search for regime change in Russia. The idea, he said, is to influence Putin’s actions, not his seizure of power. And the sanctions, the official said, are not intended as punishment but as leverage to end the war. They will escalate if Mr. Putin escalates, the official said. But the government would calibrate and maybe reduce its sanctions if Mr. Putin starts to de-escalate.

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