US and Europe step up sanctions on Russia to directly target Putin

BRUSSELS (AP) — The United States and its European allies said Friday they were tightening sanctions against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by adding measures directly targeting President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister, putting diplomatic calls aside as Russian forces sealed off the Ukrainian capital.

The move by the United States, European Union and Britain sends “a clear message about the strength of opposition to the actions” of Putin, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. On a day when explosions and gunfire rang out in the capital of Kiev, and when Pope Francis visited the Russian Embassy in Rome to personally demand an end, the sanctions were part of a growing global condemnation of the offense.

Asked by reporters if US President Joe Biden had planned any further direct diplomatic overtures to Putin, whose ground and air forces are pushing an offensive on key cities in Ukraine, Psaki said no.

“I would say a time when a leader is … invading a sovereign country is not a time when diplomacy feels appropriate,” Psaki told reporters during a White House briefing. “That doesn’t mean we’ve ruled out diplomacy forever.”

PSAKI said the United States was preparing individual sanctions against Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, which could include travel bans. The announcement came hours after the European Union announced its intention to freeze Putin’s assets, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told NATO leaders that his country would also sanction Putin and Lavrov.

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PSAKI said the United States would also sanction the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which functions as a sovereign wealth fund intended to attract capital into the Russian economy.

U.S. and European allies on Thursday announced sweeping asset freezes and other sanctions against Russian banks, state-owned companies and elites, but spared Russia’s leader and foreign minister in this round.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Biden administration’s internal talks on the issue, said there was debate among administration officials over whether to include Lavrov in the sanctions, as some wanted to ensure that a channel of diplomatic contact remained open.

Although the sanctions to be imposed would not prohibit contact between, say, Putin and Biden, or US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Lavrov, they put a new chill on what had been weeks of diplomatic efforts repeated with Russia as Putin built up forces. at the borders of Ukraine. Debate over Lavrov’s inclusion has gone back and forth and was one of the reasons individual sanctions were not announced along with Thursday’s other measures.

Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova called the allies’ decision to freeze Putin’s own assets a good one.

“It was President Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine. … And it is he who is responsible for the war that the Russian Federation is waging against us,” Markarova told reporters at the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington.

Friday’s US measures prevent Putin and Lavrov, whom the Treasury Department’s official sanctions announcement described as Putin’s “main propagandist”, from accessing any assets within reach of US officials, and bar anyone in the United States to do business with them. Members of the Russian Security Council have also been sanctioned.

It was unclear what the practical impact would be on both men and how important their assets were in Europe.

“I can assure you that if you have major assets and all of a sudden you can’t get them, it will cost you dearly,” said EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell.

EU ministers said further sanctions were still possible, including the expulsion of Russia from SWIFT, the dominant system for global financial transactions.

“The debate on SWIFT is not excluded, it will continue”, declared the Luxembourg Minister for Foreign Affairs, Jean Asselborn.

Further admonishing Russia, the Council of Europe suspended Russia from the main human rights organization on the continent. The 47-nation council said Russia remains a member and continues to be bound by relevant human rights conventions.

Undeterred by the punitive sanctions game, Russia launched its own tit-for-tat measures, banning British flights into and over its territory in retaliation for a similar British ban on Aeroflot flights.

Russian authorities also announced the “partial restriction” of access to Facebook after the social media network restricted the accounts of several Kremlin-backed outlets.

Yet, with the Kremlin’s eyes fully on expanding attacks on Ukraine, almost all the action was still going one way.

In terms not seen since the Cold War, threats are coming from all sides and crossing society.

In a sign of papal anger, Pope Francis visited the Russian embassy to “express his concern over the war”, the Vatican said. It was an extraordinary practical gesture, since popes usually receive ambassadors and heads of state at the Vatican.

The May 28 UEFA Champions League final, the Super Bowl of European football, has been pulled from St Petersburg and will move Paris. Formula 1 has scrapped this season’s Russian Grand Prix in Sochi in protest.

And in pop culture, the wildly popular Eurovision Song Contest banned Russia from May’s final in Turin, Italy.

Countries from Asia and the Pacific have joined the US, EU and others in the West to pile up punitive measures against Russian banks and big business. Nations have also implemented export controls aimed at starving Russian industries and the military of semiconductors and other high-tech products.

“Japan must make its position clear that we will never tolerate any attempt to change the status quo by force,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters on Friday.

Taiwan announced on Friday that it would join in economic sanctions, although it did not specify what those would be. They could potentially focus on controlling exports of semiconductor chips, of which Taiwan is the main producer.

While most Asian countries rallied in support of Ukraine, China continued to denounce sanctions against Russia and accused the United States and its allies of provoking Moscow. Beijing, worried about American power in Asia, has increasingly aligned its foreign policy with that of Russia to challenge the West.

“The Chinese government is continuing to ease trade restrictions with Russia and that is simply unacceptable,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison complained. “You’re not going to throw Russia a lifeline in the middle of a period when they’re invading another country.”

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Associated Press writers Foster Klug in Tokyo, Nicole Winfield in Rome, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report, along with other AP reporters from around the world.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

Mary I. Bruner