WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden on Friday vowed that Russia would pay a “severe price” if it used chemical weapons in Ukraine, while also pledging to avoid provoking Moscow into “World War III.”
The comments were a reaction after Russia accused Ukraine and the US of developing biological and chemical weapons — in what Western nations say is a ruse to lay the ground for Moscow’s own possible use of them in the conflict.
“I’m not going to speak about the intelligence, but Russia would pay a severe price if they used chemicals,” Biden said as he announced a raft of new sanctions against Moscow.
At the request of Russia, the UN Security Council is holding an emergency meeting Friday on the alleged manufacture of biological weapons in Ukraine.
Biden also moved Friday to end normal trade relations with Russia, further ratcheting up pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin after the bloody invasion of Ukraine.
The US, like other Western nations, is sending millions of dollars worth of weapons such anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, as well as sharing intelligence.
But Biden again underlined that US forces would not fight in Ukraine, despite the desperate pleas of many Ukrainians.
“We will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine. Direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War III — something we must strive to prevent,” Biden said.
In 2018, Moscow accused the US of secretly conducting biological weapons experiments in a laboratory in Georgia, another former Soviet republic that, like Ukraine, has ambitions to join NATO and the EU.
The US president made the comments as he announced that the US will dramatically downgrade its trade status with Russia and also ban imports of Russian seafood, alcohol, and diamonds.
The broad trade shift by the US, which revokes the “most favored nation” status for Russia, is being taken in coordination with the EU and Group of Seven countries.
“The free world is coming together to confront Putin,” Biden said from the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
Stripping most favored nation status from Russia would allow the US and allies to impose higher tariffs on some Russian imports, increasing the isolation of the Russian economy.
Biden’s changes on Russia’s trade status come as bipartisan pressure has been building in Washington to revoke what is formally known as “permanent normal trade relations” with Russia.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pressed the US and allies to take the action against Russia in remarks to Congress over the weekend. It follows days after the Biden administration moved to ban imports of Russian oil and gas products.
This week’s moves are the latest for the sanctions that have crippled the Russian economy and a sign that the US and its allies will continue to use their financial heft to retaliate against Putin.
The other measures include the freezing of central bank assets, limits on exports and sanctions against Russian oligarchs and their families.
These financial tools have led to the Russian ruble losing 76% of its value against the US dollar over the past month, which has caused destructive inflation that could erode Putin’s ability to wage a prolonged war in Ukraine.
Biden, after initially slow-walking congressional attempts to take the trade action against Russia, was embracing lawmakers’ efforts to do just that on Friday.
The earlier sanctions on imports of Russian oil, gas, and coal cut off about 60% of US imports from the country.
Most favored nation status has been a baseline for global trade, ensuring that countries within the World Trade Organization are treated similarly. Some countries in the WTO have special privileges due to their status as developing economies. Russia would join the ranks of Cuba and North Korea by not having MFN status from the US.
The revocation carries mostly symbolic weight. Because Russian imports into the US are primarily natural resources, they would generally face little to no increase in their tariffs because of the lost status, Ed Gresser of the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, said in an online post.
Instead of the current tariff rate, buyers of Russian goods would pay rates established under the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, which disrupted trade during the Great Depression. This would still be zero for uranium, rhodium, palladium, silver bullion and king crabs. But the import tax would shoot up for unwrought aluminum, plywood, semi-finished steel and diamonds, among other products.
On Monday, Democrats on the powerful House Ways & Means Committee posted, then removed, an announcement on a bipartisan bill to ban Russian oil imports and slap further trade sanctions on the country.
According to an aide, this was because of pushback from the White House against acting before Biden had coordinated with allies and reached a decision on both matters. The House voted Wednesday on a narrower bill to ban Russian energy imports, after Biden instituted the ban by executive order.
Canada was the first major US ally to remove most favored nation status for Russia last week.
Biden’s action was first reported by Bloomberg News.