WASHINGTON — President Obama escalated sanctions against Russia on Wednesday by targeting a series of large banks and energy and defense firms in what officials described as the most punishing measures to date for Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine.
While the latest moves do not cut off entire sectors of the Russian economy, as threatened in the past, the administration’s actions go significantly further than the financial and travel limits imposed so far on several dozen individuals and their businesses. The new measures will severely restrict access to US debt markets for the targeted companies.
“We have emphasized our preference to resolve this issue diplomatically, but we have to see concrete actions and not just words,” Obama told reporters on Wednesday evening in remarks in the White House briefing room.
He repeated that Russia needed to halt the flow of fighters and weapons across the border and support peace talks. “So far, Russia has failed to take any of the steps that I have mentioned. In fact, Russia’s support for the separatists and violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty has continued.”
Among the firms targeted were some of the most prominent in Russia, including Rosneft, the state-owned oil company and largest oil producer; Gazprombank, the financial arm of Gazprom, the giant state-controlled natural gas producer; Novatek, another Russian natural gas producer that has been competing with Gazprom; and VEB, the state economic development bank.
The administration also targeted eight state-owned defense firms; four Russian government officials, including an aide to President Vladimir V. Putin and a top official in the Federal Security Service; an oil shipping facility in Crimea, which Moscow annexed; a pro-Russian separatist leader; and the rump rebel organizations in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Russia quickly denounced the moves and vowed to retaliate. “We condemn those politicians and bureaucrats who are behind such actions,” Sergei A. Ryabkov, the deputy foreign minister, told the Interfax news agency. Ryabkov said that Moscow would respond with countermeasures that would be “quite painful and serious.”
The moves were coordinated with European leaders, who were meeting in Brussels on Wednesday to consider their own package of penalties against Russia. The Europeans declined to go as far as the United States, instead focusing on a plan to block loans for new projects in Russia by European investment banks. The disparate approaches reflect the deeper divisions between Washington and Brussels over how tough to be with Russia.
But US officials said the fact that Europe was moving ahead with additional actions, even if not as stringent as their own, should be seen as a sign of solidarity in the face of Russian provocation in Ukraine. The synchronized actions were arranged during a call between Obama and Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel.