Published March 21, 2014
In the latest move to punish Russia for seizing the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, the European Union imposed new sanctions Friday against the Russian Deputy Prime Minister, two aides and nine others in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
All sides dug in their heels as Russia’s parliament officially endorsed the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in a unanimous vote Friday. Ukraine sealed a deal tying it closer to Europe, and U.S. and European allies prepared for military exercises in the region.
EU leaders added 12 people to their existing list of 21 officials they are hitting with visa bans and asset freezes. It includes Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and three others who already made it onto a U.S. list of targets this week, a document obtained on Friday by The Associated Press showed.
It also has high ranking military officials, including two deputy Commanders of the Black Sea fleet, which is based on the Crimean Peninsula.
Russia has already hit back at the United States by announcing it would impose asset freezes on a number of high-ranking U.S. officials. But it has yet to take retaliatory action against the EU.
Addressing the public on television, Putin said he saw no need to further retaliate against U.S. sanctions, a newly conciliatory tone that apparently aimed to contain one of the worst crises in Russia's relations with the West since the Cold War.
"We must refrain from retaliatory steps for now," Putin said.
However, the Russian Foreign Ministry said a few hours later that Moscow will "harshly" respond to the latest round of U.S. sanctions -- the conflicting signals apparently intended to persuade the West to end the spat over Ukraine. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, also said that Russia would retaliate.
"We will react every time. We responded to the first round of sanctions, and we will respond to those too," he said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
President Obama ordered a second round of sanctions Thursday against nearly two dozen Putin allies and Rossiya, Russia's 15th largest bank that provides them support.
Moscow made its first retaliatory shot back on Thursday by banning nine U.S. officials and lawmakers from entering Russia, but Putin indicated that Russia would likely refrain from curtailing cooperation in areas such as Afghanistan. He said that Russia will keep funding a program to service Afghan helicopters and train their crews that has been conducted jointly with NATO.
"We must continue that cooperation even though our NATO partners intend to freeze it," Putin said. "I believe this work represents our common interests, and we need to strengthen the Afghan government."
Moscow appears to hope to limit the damage from the latest U.S. and EU sanctions and avoid further Western blows.
The sanctions, which have also targeted Putin's chief of staff along with other senior Kremlin aides and four businessmen considered to be his lifelong friends, dealt a painful blow to the Kremlin. Obama also warned that more sweeping penalties against Russia's economy, including its robust energy sector, could follow.
EU leaders decided at their summit Friday to prepare economic sanctions in case Russia expands its intervention beyond Crimea into eastern Ukraine.
International rating agencies downgraded Russia's outlook, and Russian stock plummeted Friday.
Putin tried to play down the sanctions' toll on Russia in televised remarks at Friday's session of the presidential Security Council, saying that "we should keep our distance from those people who compromise us," a jocular reference to the officials on the sanctions list.
He added sardonically that he would open an account in the targeted Bank Rossiya, a private bank that is owned by Yuri Kovalchuk, who is considered to be Putin's longtime friend and banker. With about $10 billion in assets, Rossiya ranks as the 17th largest bank in Russia and maintains numerous ties to banks in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
Putin has ordered the country's central bank to help clients of Rossiya. The bank said Friday that Visa and MasterCard stopped providing services to them. U.S. officials described the bank, which has $12 billion in assets, as a "personal bank for senior officials of the Russian Federation.” Putin said he will open a bank account at Rossiya on Monday and asked his salary to be transferred there.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's prime minister pulled his nation closer into Europe's orbit by signing a political association agreement with the European Union at a summit of the bloc's leaders in Brussels Friday.
In Crimea, heavily armed Russian forces and pro-Russia militia have blocked Ukrainian military at their bases for weeks. Following Sunday's referendum they have moved aggressively to flush the Ukrainians out, storming some ships and military facilities.
The Ukrainian government said it was drawing up plans to evacuate its outnumbered troops from Crimea, but many soldiers remained at their bases awaiting orders from Kiev amid Russian pressure.
The U. S. announced Friday it’s preparing military exercises in Poland that could involve Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary and the Baltics, Reuters reported. U.S. ambassador Stephen Mull told Polish station Radio Zet in an emailed press release that the U.S. is preparing large military exercises in the Lask base in central Poland.
The USS Truxton has left the Black Sea and has rejoined the George HW Bush strike group, Pentagon sources told Fox News Friday.
In a show of European unity against the annexation of Crimea, France says it is suspending military cooperation with Russia. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Friday the suspension would concern joint military exercises. A defense ministry official says France is offering to send warplanes to help provide air patrols over the Baltic states and Poland.
The ministry official says France was "available -- if NATO requests it -- to contribute to air policing patrols" in the former Soviet republics and Poland, now members of the Atlantic alliance. A French contribution could include warplanes, AWACs surveillance aircraft and radar. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
In Brussels Friday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and EU leaders signed an association agreement that was part of the pact that former President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of last November in favor of a $15 billion bailout from Russia.
"Russia decided to actually impose a new post-Cold War order and revise the results of the second world war," Yatsenyuk said. "The best way to contain Russia is to impose real economic leverage over them."
The U.S. and the European Union have pledged to quickly offer a bailout to Ukraine, which is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, struggling to pay off billions of dollars in debts in the coming months.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.