Saturday, December 16, 2017

U.S. plans sanctions on Russian officials

WASHINGTON — The United States prepared Monday to impose sanctions on high-level Russian officials involved in the military occupation of Crimea, as the escalating crisis in Ukraine sparked turmoil in global markets, pounding the Russian ruble and driving up energy prices.

The Obama administration suspended military ties to Russia, including exercises, port visits and planning meetings, just a day after calling off trade talks. If Moscow does not reverse course, officials said they will ban visas and freeze assets of select Russian officials in the chain of command as well as target state-run financial institutions. Congressional leaders signaled that they would follow with sanctions of their own, plus quickly approve economic aid for the fragile new pro-Western government in Ukraine.

European leaders indicated Monday that they would go along with limited action like suspending unrelated talks with Moscow and halting arms sales, but they have resisted more sweeping efforts to curb commercial activity and investment in Russia.

Without European backing, U.S. officials worry that economic sanctions may not carry enough bite to persuade President Vladimir Putin of Russia to reverse course in Ukraine. By itself, the United States is not even among Russia's top 10 trading partners, with no more than $40 billion in exports and imports exchanged between the two each year. By contrast, Europe does about $460 billion in business with Russia, giving it far more potential clout, but also exposing it to far more risk.

Western officials hoped the immediate reaction of world markets would give Moscow pause. Russia's benchmark stock index dropped 9.4 percent and the ruble fell to a record low against the dollar. The Russian central bank took the extraordinary step of raising interest rates by 1.5 percentage points, spending an estimated $20 billion to support the currency.

In his first public comments on the confrontation in three days, President Barack Obama said Monday that he was focused on assembling an economic aid package to shore up the Ukrainian government and asked that Congress make it "the first order of business."

"What we are also indicating to the Russians," Obama added, "is that if, in fact, they continue on the current trajectory that they're on, that we are examining a whole series of steps — economic, diplomatic — that will isolate Russia and will have a negative impact on Russia's economy and its standing in the world."

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