The EU has agreed to freeze European assets linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over their decision to invade Ukraine.
EU foreign ministers were meeting in Brussels on Friday to thrash out details and formally approve the sanctions, described as the harshest ever imposed by the bloc.
“We are hitting Putin’s system where it has to be hit, not only economically and financially, but also at the heart of its power,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said as she arrived for a meeting in Brussels with EU counterparts.
That is why “we now list also the president, Mr Putin, and Foreign Minister Lavrov” to a packet of new sanctions agreed by EU leaders overnight, she said.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics tweeted the 27-nation bloc’s foreign ministers adopted the sanctions package and “the asset freeze includes President of Russia and its Foreign Minister”.
Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said the move would be “a unique step in history toward a nuclear power, a country that has a permanent seat on the Security Council, but also shows … how united we are”.
It was unclear what the practical impact on Putin and Lavrov would be and how important their assets in the EU were.
An equally big move would be to ban Putin and Lavrov from EU travel. But EU leaders have made it clear that would be off the table for now, since it might complicate diplomatic moves once all sides get around the negotiating table.
Earlier on Friday, Zelenskyy urged Europe to act more quickly, accusing Western allies of politicking as Moscow’s forces advanced on Ukraine’s capital Kyiv.
“You still can stop this aggression. You have to act swiftly,” he said, adding that banning Russians from entering the EU, cutting Moscow off from the SWIFT global interbank payments system, and an oil embargo should all be on the table.
The EU sanctions hammer Russia’s financial, energy and transport sectors, curb the ability of Russians to keep large amounts of cash in EU banks, and greatly expand the number of Russians on the EU’s list of individuals barred from entering the bloc’s 27 countries and freezing any EU assets.
But the measures stopped short of kicking Russia out of the SWIFT messaging system used globally by banks to arrange transfers, a major step that has been used to devastating effect against Iran.
While Ukraine’s beleaguered government is lobbying ferociously for the EU to pull the trigger on a SWIFT ban for Russia, several EU countries, most notably Germany, which has to pay Russia for natural gas, are reluctant.
An asset freeze directed at Putin and Lavrov, both said by anti-corruption campaigners to have amassed immense wealth, has strong symbolic impact. But it was unclear how European authorities could identify their assets with legal certainty.
Hitting ‘prime architects’
The bloc is also expected to change visa rules, restricting the entry of government-related business people.
EU’s Josep Borrell admitted he “personally” is “very much in favour” of sanctioning Putin and Lavrov, but the final decision is for EU foreign ministers to take.
Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said “prime architects of this endeavour, of this darkness” must be targeted.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said adding Putin and Lavrov’s names “is absolutely appropriate, given who the key decision-makers are to actually wage war on Ukraine”.
However, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted angrily, “let’s not let the EU get away with pretending that assets bans on Putin and Lavrov can make up for real action.”
“To some European leaders who are still hesitant: each year at commemorative events you say ‘Never again’. The time to prove it is now,” he said, demanding the bloc ban Russia from SWIFT.
To some European leaders who are still hesitant: each year at commemorative events you say ‘Never again’. The time to prove it is now. Russia is waging a horrific war of aggression in Europe. Here is your ‘never again’ test: BAN RUSSIA FROM SWIFT and kick it out of everywhere.
— Dmytro Kuleba (@DmytroKuleba) February 25, 2022
Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said on Thursday his country preferred to keep the SWIFT option in reserve.
Baerbock said on Friday, “Words like agreement on SWIFT sound very tough, but in these moments, you have to keep a cool head.”
She argued it would disproportionately hurt people like “a granddaughter living in Europe who wants to transfer money to her grandmother in Russia”.
Those “responsible for the bloodshed” would have alternative ways of getting around a SWIFT ban, she said.
Undeterred in the game of punitive sanctions, Russia started its own tit-for-tat measures, banning British flights to and over its territory in retaliation for a similar UK ban on Aeroflot flights.
Russian authorities also announced the “partial restriction” of access to Facebook after the social media network limited the accounts of several Kremlin-backed media.
Russian state communications watchdog Roskomnadzor said it demanded that Facebook lift the restrictions it placed Thursday on state news agency RIA Novosti, state TV channel Zvezda, and pro-Kremlin news sites Lenta.Ru and Gazeta.Ru.