Washington, DC – United States President Joe Biden has announced new sanctions against Russia, vowing to impose a “severe cost” on the country for its invasion of Ukraine.
Speaking from the White House on Thursday, Biden voiced support for Ukraine and said the sanctions package will limit international trade with Moscow and penalise Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
“Putin is the aggressor; Putin chose this war, and now he and his country will bear the consequences,” Biden said.
The sanctions target four Russian banks that hold more than $1 trillion in assets, including the country’s largest bank, Sberbank. “That means every asset they have in America will be frozen,” the US president said.
Biden also said the sanctions will target wealthy Russians close to Putin. “We will keep up this drumbeat of those designations against corrupt billionaires in the days ahead,” he pledged.
Thursday’s measures did not target the Russian president personally, but Biden said sanctioning Putin is “on the table”.
The US move comes after Russia launched a large-scale military operation in Ukraine late on Wednesday after a months-long impasse in the region that saw Moscow amass as many as 200,000 troops near the Ukrainian border.
European countries began imposing sanctions on Russia over the invasion on Thursday, with the United Kingdom announcing measures targeting dozens of Russian banks, businesses and wealthy elites, and banning Russia’s national airline Aeroflot from the country’s airspace.
Ukrainian officials have said fighting also is taking place on the ground, with Russian forces on Thursday capturing the former nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, in the country’s north.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared martial law late on Wednesday, and pledged that Ukrainians would defend themselves against the invasion. “When you will be attacking us, you will see our faces, not our backs, but our faces,” Zelenskyy said.
Putin had accused the Ukrainian government of committing atrocities in the east of the country where government forces had been battling Russia-backed separatists since 2014, but Ukrainian officials have repeatedly denied attacking the pro-Moscow rebels.
Russia initially denied US and European allegations that it was planning to invade Ukraine, insisting that it has legitimate security concerns over Kyiv’s deepening alliance with the West – and demanding guarantees that Ukraine will not be allowed to join NATO.
Numerous rounds of talks between Russian, European and American officials had failed to end the impasse. US and European officials had argued that NATO is a defensive alliance that does not pose a threat to Russia, stressing that it would be a violation of Kyiv’s sovereignty to allow Moscow to veto its efforts to join.
Before Biden’s announcement, US lawmakers from both major parties had condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and called for swift and “painful” sanctions against Moscow.
Asked whether the sanctions failed to stop Putin from invading Ukraine, Biden said on Thursday: “The threat of the sanctions – and imposing the sanctions and seeing the effects of the sanctions – are two different things.”
Biden also said his administration will work to stablise the energy market and minimise the effects of the crisis on fuel costs in the US. Russia is one of the world’s top producers of oil and natural gas.
“I know this is hard and that Americans are already hurting. I will do everything in my power to limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump,” Biden said. “But this aggression cannot go unanswered. If it did, the consequences for America would be much worse.”
The White House later provided further details about the new sanctions on Russia.
Among other things, the measures restrict Sherbank from transactions made in US dollars while also limiting Moscow’s ability to import “sensitive technology, primarily targeting the Russian defense, aviation, and maritime sectors”, the White House said.
Penalties were also announced against 24 individuals and entities, including two state-owned banks, in Belarus, which is hosting Russian troops participating in the invasion.
“That is essentially Joe Biden and the Western alliance sending a message to others: ‘Please do not help Russia with this or else you too will face further sanctions,'” said Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher reporting from Washington.
Fisher said the White House has suggested that more sanctions could be issued if Russia does not end its attack on Ukraine. “It seems that even with the threat of sanctions, Vladimir Putin was willing to push forward. The threat of more sanctions may not be enough to force him to start pulling troops back,” he said.
During his speech, Biden reiterated Washington’s commitment to defend Eastern European NATO countries, three of which share borders with Ukraine. Members of the alliance have a collective defence pact.
The US president said American forces will not fight in Ukraine, which is not a NATO member. He underscored that the US had sent additional troops to Europe over the past weeks, announcing the deployment of forces already on the continent to “NATO’s eastern flank allies, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania”.