After Biden's threat, White House grapples with how much to sanction Russia

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(WASHINGTON) — After for weeks saying the U.S. would impose “severe and swift” sanctions on Russia if it invaded Ukraine, the Biden administration is now grappling with whether Russia’s decision to send troops across the border would trigger the most severe punishments it had prepared.

The U.S. has condemned Russia for recognizing the independence of two breakaway Ukrainian provinces already partially controlled by pro-Russian separatists — imposing limited sanctions on Monday — and blasted Russian President Vladimir Putin for ordering troops into those regions.

But as the White House stopped short of putting in place sanctions it said would make Russia an “international pariah,” observers were left to parse what, in President Joe Biden’s eyes, would actually prompt that.

“Russia will be held accountable if it invades,” Biden said at a news conference on Jan. 19. “And it depends on what it does. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera.”

Within hours, his press secretary, Jen Psaki, clarified: “If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our allies.”

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The next day, Biden, too, added: “If any — any — assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion” that “would be met with severe and coordinated economic response that I’ve discussed in detail with our allies.”

And his top national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said in a Feb. 6 interview with NBC News: “President Biden has spoken to the fact that if a Russian tank or a Russian troop moves across the border, that’s an invasion” that would result in “severe economic consequences.”

The president was scheduled to speak about the situation in Ukraine at 1 p.m. Tuesday.

But with Putin so far ordering troops into regions where Russian operatives already operate — albeit within Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders – it was unclear what, exactly, would trigger the larger sanctions.

“We think this is, yes, the beginning of an invasion, Russia’s latest invasion, into Ukraine, and you already seeing the beginning of our response that we’ve said would be swift and severe,” Jon Finer, the principal deputy U.S. national security adviser, said in an interview with CNN Tuesday.

He said the U.S. would announce “additional sanctions steps” later Tuesday. But he also suggested this was Russia’s “latest” invasion — that it was “making overt” what it had denied in the past,

“An invasion is an invasion, and that is what is underway,” he said. “But Russia has been invading Ukraine since 2014.”

Administration officials, though, had in the past suggested to reporters that sanctions would not come in a piecemeal fashion.

Psaki, though, said Monday that the sanctions the U.S. was announcing were “separate from and would be in addition to the swift and severe economic measures we have been preparing in coordination with allies and partners should Russia further invade Ukraine.”

The linguistic dance took place in Europe, as well, where the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, on Tuesday told reporters that “Russian troops are on Ukrainian soil” but that he wouldn’t call Russia’s actions “a fully fledged invasion.”

After Russia’s actions Monday, the U.S. and its allies began imposing a series of cascading sanctions.

The U.S. on Monday targeted people connected to the two separatist-controlled areas. On Tuesday, Germany took the major step of suspending the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia; the UK imposed sanctions on three Russian oligarchs, five Russian banks and Russian parliamentarians; and the European Union said it was preparing to banks and decision makers involved in the independence recognition.

But the moves — particularly from the United States – stopped far short of the most severe sanctions the White House has threatened. It has warned it was preparing to restrict Russians’ access to semiconductors; punish Russia’s aerospace, defense, and high-tech industries; cripple the country’s largest financial institutions; and hit even Putin and those around him.

“If Russia invades Ukraine, it would become a pariah to the international community, it would become isolated from global financial markets, and it would be deprived of the most sophisticated technological inputs,” the White House’s top national security official crafting sanctions, Daleep Singh, said Friday.

U.S. officials have for weeks been working to get European allies to act in unison on reacting to Russia. Biden and other top U.S. officials have repeatedly threatened “swift and severe consequences.”

American officials have signaled that there is more agreement with other Western nations on what would happen if Russia carries out a full-scale invasion of Ukraine — but that if Russia stops short and the world sees other scenarios play out — like a partial invasion of eastern Ukraine, or solely recognizing the regions’ independence, for example — the kaleidoscope of possible penalties might not come into full harmony.

ABC News’ Mary Bruce contributed to this report.

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