EU hits Putin’s defence minister and chief of staff with sanctions over Ukraine

Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff and his defense minister have been blacklisted by the EU as part of the bloc’s first round of sanctions against Moscow as the US warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could start imminently.

Anton Vaino, chief of staff in Putin’s presidential executive office, and Sergei Shoigu, defense minister, are among 27 people and entities named in a list of restrictive measures agreed by the EU member states.

Sanctions were also imposed on two of Russia’s deputy prime ministers for their work in “threaten[ing] the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine ”, and the heads of Russia’s navy, army and air force, in what EU officials said was the first of potentially multiple waves of measures against Moscow.

Meanwhile, a day after Germany halted approval of the $ 11bn Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would bring natural gas directly from Russia, President Joe Biden said his administration would impose sanctions on the company and executives responsible for overseeing its construction.

“These steps are another piece of our initial tranche of sanctions in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine,” Biden said. “Through his actions, President Putin has provided the world with an overwhelming incentive to move away from Russian gas and to other forms of energy.”

The decisions came as a Pentagon official warned that Russia could launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine at any moment after the Russian military put in place 100 percent of the troops and weapons that it requires for a large attack on the country.

“Putin and his forces are as ready as they can be,” a senior US defense official said. “They’ve advanced their readiness to a point where they are literally ready to go now if they get the order. . . They could go at any hour now. ”

The official added that Russia has already positioned more than two dozen warships in the Black Sea, including 10 amphibious landing ships. “These ships exist for one reason and that is to put boots on the ground,” he said.

Charles Michel, European Council president, has convened a summit of the bloc’s leaders in Brussels on Thursday to discuss “how we deal with Russia” and hold Moscow accountable for its actions.

“The use of force and coercion to change borders has no place in the 21st century,” he said in a letter to EU leaders.

The EU move against Vaino and Shoigu, who are members of Russia’s powerful security council, takes the bloc’s Ukraine-related sanctions to Putin’s inner circle of advisers. The measures involve an asset freeze and a ban on providing funds to those listed, and a block on travel to and within the EU.

The sanctions are a first step by the EU to punish Russia for its actions in eastern Ukraine, with policymakers warning they are ready to increase the pressure on leading Russian business figures and the country’s wider economy if Putin embarks on a full invasion of Ukraine.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, on Wednesday stressed that she did not consider that Russia had yet engaged in a “military invasion” but that it was guilty of a serious breach of international law. However, she added: “If there is any further military action against Ukraine there will be a massive and robust second package that is coming.”

She told CNN: “Russia will have to pay a price and it is President Putin who will have to explain to his people why he is putting this enormous price on them.”

Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT, the Kremlin-funded English language TV channel that broadcasts outside Russia, is on the sanctions list for having “promoted a positive attitude to. . . the actions of separatists in Donbas ”. Vladimir Solovyov, a prominent and influential Russian TV news anchor, and Maria Zakharova, foreign ministry spokeswoman, will also be hit with sanctions.

The EU foreign policy arm warned this week of a wave of Russian state-backed propaganda targeting the bloc.

The EU sanctions will also apply to three banks with operations in the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist-held territories – VEB, Promsvyazbank and Bank Rossiya, according to the list.

While VTB Bank, Russia’s second-largest by assets, was not included on the list of lenders to be put under sanctions, its president, Andrei Kostin, and deputy president, Denis Bortnikov, were on the list of individuals to be placed under them. Bortnikov’s father is the head of Russia’s FSB spy service.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is already in the EU Libya-related sanctions for his alleged links to the mercenary Wagner group, is included in the new list – alongside his mother and wife – for his business links to Crimea and the occupied areas of eastern Ukraine.

“The EU’s willingness to target Putin’s inner circle with travel bans and asset freezes, as well as initiate sanctions against Russian sovereign debt is significant,” said Emre Peker, Europe director at Eurasia Group.

Janis Emmanouilidis of the European Policy Center said: “It is important that the EU27 have agreed on a set of sanctions. However, the scale of what has been decided will not be enough to actually put pressure on President Putin. . . in case of an escalation of the conflict, the union will have to agree to further scale up the coercive measures. ”

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