The United States and its Western allies said they have imposed “new, severe and immediate economic sanctions” against Russia, banning American investment there, fully blocking the country’s largest financial institutions and targeting assets held by President Vladimir Putin’s adult children.
“Together with our allies and our partners, we're going to keep raising economic costs, to ratchet up the pain for Putin and further increase Russia's economic isolation,” President Joe Biden said Wednesday during remarks at a North America’s Building Trades Unions event.
The new measures, according to the White House, are in retribution for atrocities against Ukrainian civilians allegedly committed by Russian troops, including those discovered in recent days in Bucha, a suburb of the capital, Kyiv. The Russian military withdrew from the region while heightening its attacks on cities in southern and eastern Ukraine.
Biden said horrific images from Bucha, where dead civilians were left on the street, imparted "a sense of brutality and inhumanity left for all the world to see," as he outlined the steps his administration is taking to punish those responsible. Russia has denied killing civilians in Bucha.
The most punishing of the new measures are the “full blocking sanctions” on Sberbank, Russia’s largest financial institution, and the country’s largest private bank, Alfa Bank.
Applying full blocking sanctions against Russia’s largest bank takes U.S. measures against the Russian financial sector to their maximum level, said Andrew Lohsen, a fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies to VOA. Until now, the Biden administration had refrained from applying the same restrictions on Sberbank as it had on other Russian banks because Sberbank is one of the main institutions handling energy payments.
“That seems to have changed as images from Bucha are circulating around the world,” Lohsen said. “The aversion to carve-outs is eroding, as evidence of Russian atrocities in Ukraine comes to light.”
In a move to add psychological pressure on Putin’s inner circle, the White House said it is also sanctioning Putin’s adult children — daughters Mariya Putina and Katerina Tikhonova — as well as the wife and daughter of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and members of Russia’s Security Council. New sanctions were also applied to “critical, major Russian state-owned enterprises.”
“We've seen attempts and efforts to stash assets in the accounts and resources of his (Putin’s) children,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a briefing to reporters Wednesday.
The U.S. is also blocking Russia from making debt payments with money subject to U.S. jurisdiction. This follows action earlier this week to make Russia’s frozen funds in the United States unavailable for debt payments. Psaki said Moscow will have to decide whether they are going to spend the dollars they have to avoid default or continue to fund military operations in Ukraine.
“Part of our objective is to force them into a place where they are making that decision,” Psaki said.
The move makes it more costly for Russia to remain current on foreign debt, which may eventually push it to default and lead to further consequences, Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told VOA.
“There will be investor lawsuits. They will go after Russian government assets in Western jurisdictions. So, this could potentially be a further isolation of the Russian economy in general,” he added.
Without access to its dollars held in American banks, Russia’s Finance Ministry announced Wednesday that it had used rubles to pay about $650 million in dollar-denominated debt obligations. Payments are usually required to be made in the currency the debt was sold in.
In his remarks, Biden said that the steps already taken to punish Russia are expected to shrink the country’s gross domestic product by double digits this year alone and wipe out the last 15 years of Russia’s economic gains.
“Because we’ve cut Russia off from importing technologies like semiconductors and encryption security and critical components of quantum technology that they need to compete in the 21st century, we’re going to stifle Russia’s ability in its economy to grow for years to come,” he added.
The steps announced Wednesday were sweeping and hard-hitting, but they also mean the West is running out of levers to stop Russian aggression, unless they are willing to apply direct pressure on the Russian oil and gas sector.
“The remaining large category of unused tools would likely focus on both direct sanctions on Russian energy exports and importantly, secondary sanctions on any non-Western entities that take or facilitate such trade,” said Daniel Ahn, global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, to VOA.
Alleged war crime
Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department is assisting Ukrainian and European partners and the State Department to collect evidence of alleged war crimes by Russan forces in Ukraine.
Federal criminal prosecutors met with prosecutors from Eurojust and Europol on Monday "to work out a plan for gathering evidence." On Tuesday, the top Justice Department prosecutor in Paris met with French prosecutors, Garland said at a news conference. He also announced the indictment of a Russian oligarch.
The actions by the U.S., G-7 countries and the European Union came as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pushed for more resolute action against Russia.
"When we are hearing new rhetoric about sanctions ... I can't tolerate any indecisiveness after everything that Russian troops have done," Zelenskyy told Ireland’s parliament in a video address Wednesday.
He reiterated his criticism of European leaders that he says are more concerned with how potential bans on Russian energy imports will affect their economies than the welfare of the Ukrainian people.
Ahead of the start of a two-day NATO meeting in Brussels, the United States announced $100 million in military aid for Ukraine. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the assistance would “meet an urgent Ukrainian need for additional Javelin anti-armor systems, which the United States has been providing to Ukraine, and they have been using so effectively to defend their country.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters that alliance members “are determined to provide further support to Ukraine,” including humanitarian and financial aid, in addition to military equipment and cybersecurity assistance.
“I expect we will also decide to do more for NATO’s other partners, which are vulnerable to Russian threats and interference, including Georgia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Stoltenberg said.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba is scheduled to address the NATO ministerial meeting Thursday.
"The main topic of my discussion in Brussels will be the supply of all necessary weapons to Ukraine," he said.
VOA’s Ken Bredemeier and Masood Farivar contributed to this report.