West hits back with sanctions for Russia’s Ukraine actions

By RAF CASERT, AAMER MADHANI and ZEKE MILLER

BRUSSELS (AP) — Responding swiftly to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order sending troops to separatist regions of Ukraine, world leaders hit back with non-military actions Tuesday in hopes of averting a full-blown war in Europe.

Germany made the first big move, taking steps to halt certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia — a massive, lucrative project long sought by Moscow but criticized by the U.S. for increasing Europe’s reliance on Russian energy supplies.

And in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden announced financial sanctions on banks and Russian officials close to Putin and their sons as punishment for what he called “the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.” He said the U.S. would impose “full blocking” on two large Russian financial institutions and “comprehensive sanctions” on Russian debt.

“That means we’ve cut off Russia’s government from Western finance,” Biden said. “It can no longer raise money from the West and cannot trade in its new debt on our markets or European markets either.”

Biden promised that more sanctions would be coming if Putin proceeds further.

The European Union announced sanctions taking aim at the 351 Duma legislators who voted in favor of recognizing separatist regions in Ukraine, as well as 27 other Russian officials and institutions from the defense and banking world. They also sought to limit Moscow’s access to EU capital and financial markets.

“This package of sanctions … will hurt Russia and it will hurt a lot,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after chairing a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Paris.

“We will make it as difficult as possible for the Kremlin to pursue its aggressive policies,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Outside the EU, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson named five Russian banks and three wealthy Russian businessmen whom the U.K. hit with sanctions on Tuesday.

Australia on Wednesday said it would align with the U.S. and Britain by targeting two Russian banks. It also imposed sanctions and travel bans on eight members of Putin’s Security Council. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said these are a first batch of measures in response to Russian aggression toward Ukraine.

Japan also announced sanctions, with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida saying Wednesday that his government will ban new issuance and distribution of Russian government bonds in Japan. He said Japan will also ban travel by people linked to the two Ukrainian rebel regions and freeze their assets in Japan, and will ban trade with the two areas.

And if Putin pushes farther into Ukraine, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg insisted, “there will be even stronger sanctions, even a higher price to pay.”

The U.S. and other Western nations have pressed daily for diplomatic efforts to head off a dangerous military confrontation. But the failure of that effort was underscored Tuesday as Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled plans for a Thursday meeting in Geneva with his Russian counterpart, saying Russia’s actions showed there was no point.

Western powers have long made clear the fate of Ukraine must not lead to a direct military confrontation with Russia and the potential of a world war, so sanctions were the limited option.

“No lows too low, no lies too blatant, no red lines too red to cross,” Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said in summing up the political disgust for Putin’s actions felt by nations from Europe to North America and the democracies hugging Russia’s borders in Asia such as Japan and South Korea.

However, Putin continued to knock the world off-kilter with a strategy that has led to confusion about his plans and possible actions.

Russia said it was sending what it called “peacekeepers” into eastern Ukraine, but EU foreign policy chief Borrell stressed they were “troops” on sovereign Ukrainian territory.

“I wouldn’t say that’s a fully fledged invasion, but Russian troops are on Ukrainian soil,” Borrell said.

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace didn’t mince words. “Russia has already invaded Ukraine. They did it in 2014, occupied illegally Crimea and Donbas. This is a further invasion of their sovereign territory,” Wallace said.

Whatever the description, the latest developments were enough to push the 27-nation bloc into a mode of high alert, and the EU’s foreign ministers stressed the sanctions announced Tuesday were done in close consultation with the United States and other Western allies.

They stopped short of the “massive” package threatened by the EU and Washington for a full military invasion into national territory that Kyiv still controls.

“The way we respond will define us for the generations to come,” Simonyte said.

Too much too soon, though, could hurt the international response, said Britain’s Johnson. “This the first tranche, the first barrage of what we are prepared to do, and we hold further sanctions at readiness to be deployed,” he told British lawmakers.

“This is a first step,” agreed French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. ”We have more ammunition.”

Biden’s announcement appeared to hold in reserve some of the broadest and toughest of the penalties considered by the United States. Those include an export ban that would deny Russia U.S. high technology for its industries and military, and more sweeping financial bans that could cripple Russia’s ability to do business with the rest of the world.

Still, U.S. Secretary of State Blinken said the sanctions announced are in line with “start high, stay high” approach.

White House deputy national security adviser Daleep Singh added that the initial sanctions send the message that “no Russian financial institution is safe if the invasion proceeds.”

“No one should think that it’s our goal to max out on sanctions,” Singh said. “Sanctions are not an end of themselves. They serve a higher purpose, and that purpose is to deter and prevent.”

The two major Russian banks targeted by the U.S. sanctions are Vnesheconombank (VEB) and Promsvyazbank Public Joint Stock Company (PSB). VEB is crucial to Russia’s ability to raise funds, and PSB is critical to Russia’s defense sector. The two hold more than $80 billion in assets combined and will be cut off from carrying out transactions in the U.S. and European banking systems.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dymtro Kuleba said after a meeting with Blinken in Washington on Tuesday that U.S and Western sanctions against Russia in escalating waves can work, but he urged allies to be aggressive. Kuleba argued that Putin should not have a “single moment” when he feels sanctions have reached a ceiling.

Among those cited for sanctions are Denis Bortnikov a deputy president of state-owned VTB Bank, and Petr Fradkov, chairman and CEO of PSB.

The VTB official’s father, Alexander Bortnikov, director of the Federal Security Service and a permanent member of the Security Council, was also cited in the sanction lists. Fradkov is the son of Mikhail Fradkov, a former Russian prime minister and former director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, who already was under U.S. sanctions.

Sergei Kiriyenko, Putin’s first deputy chief of staff, and his son Vladimir Kiriyenko, who is the CEO of the parent company of Russia’s top social media platform, VKontakte, were also designated.

Hopes are dwindling that a major conflict can be averted. Putin’s directive came hours after he recognized the two Ukrainian separatist regions as independent, setting up Russian military support and antagonizing Western leaders who regard his actions as a breach of world order.

Putin has blamed NATO for the current crisis and called the U.S.-led alliance a threat to Russia.

The global condemnation came amid rising skirmishes in the eastern regions of Ukraine that Western powers believe Russia could use as a pretext for an attack on the Europe-leaning democracy that has defied Moscow’s attempts to pull it back into its orbit.

With an estimated 150,000 Russian troops massed on three sides of Ukraine, the U.S. has warned that Moscow has already decided to invade. Still, Biden and Putin tentatively agreed to a possible meeting brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron in a last-ditch effort to avoid war.

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AP Writers Aamer Madhani and Zeke Miller reported from Washington. AP reporters from around the world contributed.

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