By Raf Casert and Mike Corder
BRUSSELS: European Union leaders said Thursday they will hit more people with a travel ban and asset freeze, closing in on President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle to punish him in the escalating crisis over the Russian annexation of the Crimea peninsula.
They also announced plans to scrap a scheduled EU-Russia summit in June as part of the intensifying standoff over Ukraine, which has turned into one of the biggest political crisis in Europe since the Cold War.
“We need to prepare to take further steps and we need to do it together,” said Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. “A strong Europe is the last thing that Putin wants. He wants to split us up.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel said beyond increasing the number of Russians and Crimeans affected by asset freezes and travel bans — initially at 21 politicians and military commanders — the leaders would prepare stronger measures for future use, which would include economic sanctions and an arms embargo.
As Europe promised to get tougher, President Barack Obama announced the United States is also levying a new round of sanctions on individuals in Russia. Russia hit back, imposing entry bans on nine U.S. lawmakers and officials in response to Washington’s sanctions.
President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania said the EU would not be far behind the United States.
“It is already time to target the close circle of Putin,” she said. “This list is not yet large enough and sufficient and is very low-level.” The final number of officials was expected late Thursday.
Beyond punishing Russia on Thursday, the EU also wanted to show backing for Ukraine, which lost Crimea to Moscow on Tuesday.
British Prime Minster David Cameron said the two-day summit would also focus on strengthening Ukraine’s fledgling government, calling on the 28 EU nations’ need to bolster the new Ukrainian authorities with political commitments and economic aid.
Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk will sign a political agreement Friday with EU leaders, underscoring Europe’s commitment to the new leadership in Kiev.
Speaking to France-24 television from Brussels, he called the agreement “the first big tremendous step to make Ukraine really a part of big Europe.”
“We do understand that this is only the first step,” Yatsenyuk said. “But this will pave the way to real reforms ... that my country urgently needs.”
Despite the tough talk, there also is concern in Europe about inflicting too much economic damage as the continent crawls out of a crippling financial crisis.
The EU is Moscow’s biggest trading partner, and Russia is the EU’s third-largest partner, mostly thanks to exports of raw materials such as oil and gas. Because of the multi-billion trade exchanges, any step toward economic sanctions will not be taken lightly.
“The Russian economy is already hurt by what Putin is doing,” Reinfeldt said, adding that a spree of retaliatory sanctions would hurt everyone.
“We need to prepare ourselves and that means, of course, hurting ourselves in a way,” he said.
Jamey Keaten contributed from Paris