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US, Europe agree to freeze Putin’s assets as Moscow derides West’s ‘impotence’

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman warns relations are near a ‘point of no return’ as countries tighten screws on Russian economy in response to invasion of Ukraine

In this handout photo released by Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks during a meeting with top envoys from the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, Vladislav Deinego of the Luhansk People's Republic and Sergei Peresada, of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022 (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this handout photo released by Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks during a meeting with top envoys from the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, Vladislav Deinego of the Luhansk People's Republic and Sergei Peresada, of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022 (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)

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.

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.

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.”

“I can assure you that if you got major assets and all of a sudden you can’t get hold of them, it will cost you,” said EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell. He did not provide details.

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.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a media conference after an extraordinary EU summit on Ukraine in Brussels, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022 (Olivier Hoslet, Pool Photo via AP)

A Russian foreign ministry official said the sanctions were a sign of the West’s “impotence.”

“Sanctions against the president and the foreign minister of a country are an example and a demonstration of the complete impotence of the foreign policy” of the West, foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Russian television.

Zakharova added that relations with the West were close to a “point of no return.”

File: Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

EU ministers have said that even further sanctions were still possible, including booting Russia out of 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.

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 UK ban on Aeroflot flights.

Demonstrators hold a banner during a protest in front of Lisbon’s City Hall, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022 (AP Photo/Ana Brigida)

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.

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

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

And just as Russia was making a pincer movement to choke Ukraine and its capital, 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 held a virtual summit of government leaders, including US President Joe Biden, later Friday.

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

From left, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, Latvia’s Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin, Romania’s President Klaus Werner Ioannis and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte during a round table meeting at an extraordinary EU summit on Ukraine at the European Council building in Brussels, Thursday, Feb 24, 2022 (Olivier Hoslet, Pool Photo via AP)

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 Super Bowl 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.

And in pop culture, the wildly popular Eurovision song contest also banned Russia from the May finals in Turin, Italy.

A man holds a placard depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin as Adolf Hitler during a protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in front of the Ukrainian embassy in Bucharest, Romania, Thursday, Feb.24, 2022 (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru)

Action wasn’t only limited to Western powers. Countries in Asia and the Pacific have joined the US, 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 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 US and its allies for provoking Moscow. Beijing, worried about American 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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