US, EU agree to freeze assets of Russia’s Putin, Lavrov

Raf Casert and Foster Klug
Associated Press

Brussels – The Biden administration announced Friday that it will move to freeze the assets of President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, following the European Union and Britain in directly sanctioning top Russian leadership.

The Treasury Department announced the sanctions shortly after the EU said it had also approved an asset freeze against Putin and Lavrov as part of a broader package of sanctions against Russia for the invasion of Ukraine. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also told NATO leaders during a call Friday that Britain would move to impose sanctions against Putin and Lavrov.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It wasn’t immediately clear how impactful an asset freeze would be on Putin or Lavrov, but the direct action targeting the Russian president was meant to be seen as a warning to Putin that he could emerge as an international pariah if he doesn’t end the invasion of Ukraine.

EU foreign ministers begin a round table meeting at the European Council building in Brussels, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022.

More: The latest on the Russia-Ukraine crisis for Friday, Feb. 25, 2022

The world has made it clear that a military intervention in Ukraine is off the table for now, so most countries on Friday were heaping more punishment on Moscow – from financial to football sanctions.

“We are not just listing oligarchs, we haven’t just already listed many lawmakers who prepared these steps, but we are now also listing the president, Mr. Putin, and the foreign minister, Mr. Lavrov,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said.

EU foreign ministers meeting late Friday would need unanimous support from the 27 member nations to impose such an asset freeze. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said if there are “no surprises, nobody objects and if there is unanimity then, yes certainly.” He added: “I am personally very much in favor.”

If the EU would go as far as freezing Putin’s assets in the EU, it 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,” Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said.

An equally big move would be to ban Putin and Lavrov from EU travel. But overnight, EU leaders made it clear that would be off the table for now, if only since it might complicate diplomatic moves once all sides get around the negotiating table.

EU ministers have said that even further sanctions were still possible, including booting Russia off SWIFT, the dominant system for global financial transactions.

“The debate about SWIFT is not off the table, it will continue,” Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, right, speaks with Director-General of the European Union Military Staff Herve Blejean, center, during a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022.

Admonishing Russia further, the Council of Europe suspended Russia from the continent’s foremost human rights organization. The 47-nation council said Russia remained a member and continued to be bound by the relevant human rights conventions.

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 to a similar U.K. ban on Aeroflot flights.

Yet with the Kremlin’s eyes fully targeted on expanding the attacks on Ukraine, almost of the action was still going one way.

EU leaders discussed until the early hours of Friday any ways to hit Putin even harder than the two sets of sanctions that it already approved.

“We are hitting the regime at all levels and we are hitting it hardest,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said early Friday.

The EU and other Western powers like the United States and the United Kingdom have agreed on a slew of sanctions targeting Russia’s banking sector to its oil refineries and the defense industry.

And just as Russia was making a pincer movement to choke Ukraine and its capita,l Kyiv, Western powers were implementing measures aimed at “asphyxiating Russia’s economy,” in the words of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Seeking to buttress its eastern flank, the NATO alliance was holding a virtual summit of government leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, later Friday.

In terms unheard since the Cold War, threats were flying from all sides and ran through society.

In a sign of papal anger, Pope Francis went to the Russian Embassy himself to “express his concern about the war,” the Vatican said. It was an extraordinary, hands-on gesture, since usually popes receive ambassadors and heads of state in the Vatican. For Francis, the Vatican head of state, to leave the city state and travel a short distance to the Russian Embassy to the Holy See was a sign of his displeasure.

Putin’s invasion also had repercussions in the sports world.

The May 28 UEFA Champions League final, the Superbowl of European soccer, was stripped from St. Petersburg and replaced by Paris after the involvement of French President Emmanuel Macron. Formula One also dropped this season’s Russian Grand Prix at Sochi in protest.

Action wasn’t only limited to Western powers. Countries in Asia and the Pacific have joined the United States, the EU and others in the West in piling on punitive measures against Russian banks and leading companies. The nations have also set up export controls aimed at starving Russia’s industries and military of semiconductors and other high-tech products.

“Japan must clearly show its position that we will never tolerate any attempt to change the status quo by force,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters Friday while announcing new punitive measures that included freezing the visas and assets of Russian groups, banks and individuals, and the suspension of shipments of semiconductors and other restricted goods to Russian military-linked organizations.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said “an unthinkable number of innocent lives could be lost because of Russia’s decision,” and announced targeted travel bans against Russian officials and other measures.

Taiwan announced Friday that it would join in economic sanctions, although it did not specify what those would be. They could potentially be focused on export control of semiconductor chips, where Taiwan is the dominant producer.

While most nations in Asia rallied to support Ukraine, China has continued to denounce sanctions against Russia and blamed the United States and its allies for provoking Moscow. Beijing, worried about U.S. power in Asia, has increasingly aligned its foreign policy with Russia to challenge the West.

“The Chinese government is following through on easing trade restrictions with Russia and that is simply unacceptable,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison complained. “You don’t go and throw a lifeline to Russia in the middle of a period when they’re invading another country,” he added.

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Foster Klug reported from Tokyo. AP journalists across the world contributed to this story.