By Julie Pace
WASHINGTON: Raising the stakes in an East-West showdown over Ukraine, President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered economic sanctions against nearly two-dozen members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and a major Russian bank that provides them support. He warned that more sweeping penalties against Russia’s robust energy sector could follow.
Russia retaliated swiftly, imposing entry bans on American lawmakers and senior White House officials, among them Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester, Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer and the president’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes.
It’s far more than just a U.S.-Russia dispute. European Union leaders said they, too, were ready to close in on Putin’s associates, announcing plans to impose travel bans and asset freezes on more Russians involved in the territorial clash with Ukraine. The Western aim is twofold: to ratchet up the costs for Putin’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and to head off any further Russian military inroads into Ukraine.
“The world is watching with grave concern as Russia has positioned its military in a way that could lead to further incursions into southern and eastern Ukraine,” Obama said, speaking from the South Lawn of the White House.
Thursday’s volleys deepened the confrontation over Ukraine, a standoff that has become one of the biggest political crises in Europe since the Cold War. Putin, rather than backing off as the West warns of costs, has defiantly moved military forces into Crimea, backed a referendum in which the Crimean people overwhelmingly voted to join Russia and then signed a treaty formally absorbing the strategically important peninsula into Russia.
In Ukraine, pro-Russian forces seized three Ukrainian warships Thursday, and U.S. officials acknowledge privately that there is little chance of Russia giving up Crimea now. The more pressing concern is stopping Putin from pushing into other Ukrainian areas with large ethnic Russian populations. Thousands of Russian troops are currently positioned along Ukraine’s eastern border.
The Pentagon said Russia’s defense minister assured Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that those forces have no intention of crossing into Ukrainian territory and are only in the region to conduct military exercises. The two men spoke by phone for an hour.
The United States had received similar assurances from top Kremlin officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, before Russian troops moved into Crimea.
The penalties announced Thursday by the U.S. and Europe build on an initial round of narrower sanctions levied earlier this week. While European officials did not immediately release names, the United States listed some of Putin’s closest associates.
Putin has not been personally targeted by the first two rounds of U.S. sanctions. American sanctions on heads of state are rare, largely reserved for instances where the United States is seeking a change in government leadership.