President Biden said Wednesday that he’s open to banning Russian oil imports as he accused Moscow’s invading troops of intentionally targeting residential areas in Ukraine.
Biden, facing calls to sanction Russia’s lucrative energy exports, indicated his willingness to go further after claiming Tuesday night in his first State of the Union address that “we prepared extensively and carefully” to respond to Russia’s attack.
Critics slammed Biden last week for implementing initially limited sanctions as tanks rolled across Ukraine’s borders and as Russian jets bombed targets across the former Soviet republic.
“Are you considering banning Russian oil imports?” a reporter asked Biden on the White House lawn as he departed on a trip to Minnesota and Wisconsin Wednesday.
“Nothing is off the table,” the president answered.
Biden added that it was “too soon to say” if Russian troops are committing war crimes against Ukrainian civilians, but that he believes Russia is targeting residential areas.
“Do you believe Russia is intentionally targeting civilian areas? There are over 2,000 civilian deaths right now according to [Ukraine’s government],” a reporter said.
“It’s clear they are,” Biden responded.
Russian attacks are inflicting heavy damage amid unexpectedly stiff resistance, most notably in Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv. The Kyiv government has distributed arms to civilians and urged them to fight off the invading army.
The exact death toll from the week-old conflict is uncertain, but Ukrainian officials have put forward estimates of about 2,000 fatalities among non-combatants.
Biden also offered moral support Wednesday for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky when asked if he “should stay in Ukraine” or leave.
“I think it’s his judgment to make and we’re doing everything we can to help him,” Biden said.
Biden, a practicing Catholic who spoke to reporters with a cross drawn in ashes on his forehead in recognition of Ash Wednesday, endorsed Pope Francis’ call for a day of prayer and fasting to lobby God for peace.
“I was with the cardinal this morning. He came over to give me ashes and we both prayed for that, for the people of Ukraine,” said Biden, who told reporters he gave up sweets for Lent.
Asked if he had reached out to China for help with imposing economic sanctions against Russia, Biden said, “not directly yet — the staff have been in contact with them.”
When a reporter pressed Biden on whether he wants “permanent bases” housing US troops in NATO member country Poland, he said, “that’s a decision for NATO to make.”
Polish President Andrzej Duda in 2018 tried to charm then-President Donald Trump into adopting the idea — saying he thought an installation should be named “Fort Trump.”
Biden initially announced limited sanctions last week against most state-owned Russian banks and certain elite businessmen in response to the invasion.
After receiving criticism, the president over the weekend applied sanctions to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vast personal wealth and reached an agreement with US allies to disconnect Russia from the SWIFT international banking system.
White House officials said last week they were intentionally safeguarding the flow of Russian fossil fuels, despite supporters of Ukraine claiming that energy purchases are funding Moscow’s war machine.
“To be clear: Our sanctions [against Russian banks] are not designed to cause any disruption to the current flow of energy from Russia to the world,” Daleep Singh, a deputy White House national security adviser, said Thursday.
“We’ve carved out energy payments on a time-bound basis to allow for an orderly transition of these flows away from sanctioned institutions, and we’ve provided other licenses to provide for an orderly winddown of business,” he said.
Biden this week authorized the distribution of oil from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve after the conflict caused gas prices to spike to a seven-year high, potentially worsening already soaring inflation.
Germany’s government said last week that it would not allow the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline to open because of the invasion. Biden faced withering Republican criticism last year for waiving sanctions against the Baltic Sea project, which would have piped fuel directly from Russia to Germany.