President Barack Obama announced new sanctions against Russia, just hours after the European Union expanded its own punitive measures over what the West sees as Moscow's continued efforts to destabilize Ukraine.
Citing Russia's unrelenting support of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, Obama said on Tuesday that, in coordination with European partners, the U.S. was imposing sanctions on more Russian banks and defense companies, as well as on the country’s energy, arms and finance sectors.
The measures, he said, “will make a weak Russian economy even weaker.”
Saying that the U.S. has built a strong international coalition to support Ukraine and increase pressure on Russia, Obama emphasized that President Vladimir Putin has a choice to make.
“A sovereign and independent Ukraine is no threat to Russian interests,” he said, adding that it has a right to chart its own course.
European Union countries reached agreement on Tuesday to impose new economic sanctions against Russia, targeting its oil industry, defense, dual-use goods and sensitive technologies, according to diplomats.
The measures will also shut state-owned Russian banks out of European capital markets.
The decision was reached by EU ambassadors at a meeting in Brussels.
The new sanctions, imposed on Russia over its role in the conflict in Ukraine, will be subject to review after three months, according to one diplomat.
In a conference call with President Barack Obama on Monday, the leaders of Britain, Germany, Italy and France expressed their willingness to adopt new sanctions against Russia in coordination with the United States.
Diplomats said that participants of the talks on Tuesday have also approved a new list of people and companies close to Russian President Vladimir Putin to be sanctioned under previous punitive measures.
The list, expected to be made public Wednesday, will add to the 87 people and entities, already penalized with asset freezes and other measures over Russia’s role in the conflict in Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU measures against Moscow were "unavoidable."
The EU had been reluctant to impose sectoral sanctions on Russia fearing the move might adversely impact the economies of its member states, but the recent downing of a civilian airliner over Ukraine, resulting in the deaths of 298 people, seems to have strengthened the bloc’s resolve.
The EU depends on Russia for much of its natural gas and oil.
Intense fighting between advancing Ukrainian troops and pro-Russia separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine killed dozens of civilians, soldiers and rebels, as Kyiv pressed on with an offensive Tuesday, including near the crash site of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.
Shells hit the center of Donetsk, a city with a pre-war population of nearly a million, and one of the two remaining main urban rebel strongholds. One person was reported killed.
Earlier, municipal officials said up to 17 people, including children, were killed in fighting in the town of Horlivka, north of Donetsk. In Luhansk, the other urban rebel stronghold, officials said five civilians were killed when shells hit a retirement home.
Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine National Security and Defense Council said 10 Ukrainian soldiers were killed over the last 24 hours. Separatist commander and Russian citizen Igor Strelkov said that 30 of his fighters have been killed or wounded.
Also Tuesday, CNN quoted U.S. officials as saying the Ukrainian military had fired short-range surface-to-surface ballistic missiles at the rebels over the preceding 48 hours.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian military spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov accused separatists firing rockets at residential buildings in the city of Shakhtarsk, not far from the Malaysian plane's crash site.
MH17 crash site access blocked
Violence in the region has also hampered international experts' efforts to access the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 for a third day. A Dutch police mission said it abandoned plans to travel there Tuesday due to fighting along the route.
Meanwhile, Ukraine and the Netherlands have reached a draft agreement on an international mission to protect the investigation of the downing of MH17 and facilitate the recovery of remains at the crash site.
The mission, according to the text of the agreement published on website of Ukraine's parliament, will consist of up to 700 personnel authorized to carry weapons for their self-defense.
Mission members will hold a status “equivalent to that accorded to the administrative and technical staff of a diplomatic mission,” the draft agreement says.
Meanwhile, rebels threatened Tuesday to ban personnel from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from the crash site, accusing them of “serving the interests of the United States and Ukraine,” according to a statement emailed by the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic."
Some information for this report provided by Reuters.