Russia has vowed to respond to a newly imposed set of sanctions from the West, Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, said Tuesday as the European Union released its list of 15 Russians and Ukrainians subject to asset freezes and travel bans.
That list includes a deputy prime minister, deputy chairman of the the lower house of parliament, the chief of staff of Russia’s armed forces and several pro-Russian rebel leaders in Ukraine. Notable omissions from the list were the heads of Russian energy giants, like Igor Sechin of Rosneft, who was included on a new U.S. sanctions list released Monday.
“After the second wave of sanctions, the government is developing measures in response, first evaluating the potential damage to our economy,” Russian news agency Interfax quoted Matviyenko as saying. “Such unfriendly attacks … cannot be left without a response, and I believe there must certainly be a response.”
Leaders of the Group of Seven countries — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — decided last week to impose additional penalties after determining that Russia has not lived up to its commitments under a fragile diplomatic accord aimed at easing the crisis in Ukraine.
They hope unified economic pressure against Russian President Vladimir Putin will force his government to withdraw 40,000 troops from near the Ukrainian border and influence pro-Russian rebel leaders to leave government buildings and public spaces they are currently occupying.
“Russia has done nothing to meet its Geneva commitments and in fact has further escalated the crisis,” a White House statement said, referring to a failed diplomatic agreement reached in Geneva just over a week ago. “Russia’s involvement in the recent violence in eastern Ukraine is indisputable.”
Russia denies it has stoked separatism in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine or that it is able to force rebels there to lay down their arms, but U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a closed-door meeting in Washington on Friday that the U.S. had taped conversations between Moscow and a network of spies in eastern Ukraine, according to a recording of that meeting obtained by The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
“Intel is producing taped conversations of intelligence operatives taking their orders from Moscow, and everybody can tell the difference in the accents, in the idioms, in the language. We know exactly who’s giving those orders. We know where they are coming from,” Kerry said at a private meeting of the Trilateral Commission in Washington.
Though Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told U.S. counterpart Chuck Hagel in a phone call Monday that Russian forces had in fact returned to their permanent positions across Ukraine’s eastern border, a NATO official said Tuesday there was no evidence of a withdrawal.
“We continue to urge Russia to abide by the Geneva agreement and to pull back all its troops along the Ukrainian border in favor of diplomacy and dialogue,” the official told Reuters.
The new U.S. sanctions announced Monday target high-technology exports to Russia’s defense industry as well as 17 companies linked to Putin and his allies. The White House said it was ready to impose further sanctions on key sectors of the Russian economy, including financial services, energy, metals and mining, engineering and defense.
“The goal here is not to go after Mr. Putin personally,” President Barack Obama said. “The goal is to change his calculus with respect to how the current actions that he’s engaging in could have an adverse impact on the Russian economy over the long haul.”
The new sanctions are intended to build on earlier U.S. and European visa bans and asset freezes imposed on Russian officials, including many in Putin’s inner circle, after Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine last month.
The EU is Russia’s biggest trading partner, giving it greater economic leverage over Moscow than the U.S. However, the EU treads more carefully in imposing sanctions since Russia is also one of its biggest oil and gas suppliers — and the bloc apparently shied from following Washington’s lead in targeting specific Russian companies.
In the wake of compounded economic pressure, Russian officials and industry leaders have put on a brave public face. Russian conglomerate Rostec, which was created by Putin in 2007 and encompasses weapons, cars and metals, said U.S. sanctions against CEO Sergei Chemezov would not undermine the company’s operations or prevent him from running the company.
Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said Tuesday he saw no immediate impact on Russia’s high tech companies from U.S. sanctions either. “I cannot see at the moment that any companies will suffer,” he told journalists at the Federation Council.
Putin said Monday that Russia would be able to replace any defense industry imports lost because of the sanctions with its own products.
But several top Russian businesspeople have complained that the Ukraine crisis has cost them hundreds of millions of dollars as regional turmoil shakes international investors.
The failed Geneva agreement called on the Kremlin to use its influence to get pro-Russian insurgents to leave the government buildings they have occupied in eastern Ukraine. Those forces have not only balked at leaving the buildings but also stepped up their provocations, including capturing European military observers whom the militants paraded before the media Sunday.
Despite the deteriorating situation, Obama said Russia still has the opportunity to resolve the Ukraine crisis through diplomacy. But he voiced skepticism about whether the new sanctions package would be enough to change Putin’s reckoning.
“We don’t yet know whether it’s going to work,” Obama said.
In a separate development, the mayor of Ukraine’s second-largest city was shot Monday.
Kharkiv Mayor Gennady Kernes was “hit by a bullet in the back” during an attack by unknown gunmen, officials said, adding that he was “fighting for his life” as doctors performed surgery on him.
Ukrainian officials have not commented on who they suspect was behind the attack, but Kernes could have angered both sides. He first held a pro-Russian stance, but after the ouster of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, changed his position to support the new Western-backed government in Kyiv.
Kernes’ friend and former Kharkiv governor Mykhailo Dobkin told journalists the attackers aimed at Kernes’ heart and wanted to kill him to destabilize the city.
“If you want to know my opinion, they were shooting not at Kernes but at Kharkiv,” he said.
Dobkin is among several candidates running in Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election, which the interim government says Russia is trying to derail.
Al Jazeera and wire services