Monday, May 16, 2022

Russian forces pound Ukraine cities as US announces tougher sanctions

The US has announced a new round of sanctions targeting Russian banks as well as Kremlin officials and their family members.

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Russian artillery pounded key cities in Ukraine on Wednesday, as its president urged the West to act decisively in imposing new and tougher sanctions against Russia in response to civilian killings widely condemned as war crimes.

The US announced a new round of sanctions targeting Russian banks as well as Kremlin officials and their family members. The head of the European Commission signalled further moves – including examining energy imports – on top of sanctions unveiled by the bloc on Tuesday.

Western sanctions over Russia’s invasion gained new impetus this week after the bodies of civilians shot at close range were found in the town of Bucha when it was retaken from Russian forces.

Pope Francis, without apportioning blame, described the killings as a “massacre” and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the West needed to act decisively in taking “more rigid” steps against Russia, which said the Bucha killings were staged.

“I can’t tolerate any indecisiveness after everything that Russian troops have done,” Zelenskiy told Irish lawmakers by videolink.

Some Western leaders “still think that war and war crimes are not something as horrific as financial losses”, he added.

But a crack in a unified EU front emerged, with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban saying his government was prepared to accede to Russia’s demand to pay in roubles for Russian gas.

Moscow last week demanded payments for gas in roubles from countries it deemed “unfriendly”, but Brussels said those with euro or dollar contracts should stick to them.

Germany, Europe’s largest economy which relies on Russian gas for much of its energy needs, warned that while it supported ending Russian energy imports as soon as possible it could not do it overnight.

The war has killed thousands, turned entire cities into rubble and left a quarter of Ukraine’s population homeless. As it heads into its seventh week, the risk that it could escalate into a broader conflict remains a concern.

Reflecting such fears, the EU executive said it had begun a stockpiling operation to boost its defences against chemical, nuclear and biological threats.

Ukraine’s foreign minister said only an embargo on sales of gas and oil that provide billions of dollars to Russia every week and cutting off all Russian banks from the global financial system could halt the war.

“It will take a gas/oil embargo and de-SWIFTing of all Russian banks to stop Putin. Difficult times require difficult decisions,” Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter, referring to the international Swift network for bank transfers.

The new sanctions may increase economic hardship for Russians without putting much of a dent in Russia’s energy revenues, according to US sanctions analysts.

Russia supplies around 40% of the EU’s natural gas consumption. The EU also gets a third of its oil imports from Russia, about US$700 million per day.

“We are at the point where we have to take some pain,” said Benn Steil, of the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in New York. “The initial batches of sanctions were crafted as much to not hurt us in the West as much as they were to hurt Russia.”

Hungary’s Orban said he had spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin and asked him to announce an immediate ceasefire.

He said he had invited Putin for talks in Hungary to be held with the Ukrainian and French presidents as well as the German chancellor. Putin’s response was “positive”, he said, but added the Russian leader said there would be conditions.

Bucha images staged, says Russia

Western policymakers have denounced the killings in Bucha as a war crime, and Ukrainian officials say a mass grave by a church there contain between 150 and 300 bodies. Satellite images taken weeks ago in the town, situated north of the capital Kyiv, show bodies of civilians on a street, a private US company said.

Moscow, which refers to the conflict as a “special military operation” designed to “denazify” Ukraine, denied targeting civilians there or elsewhere. Russia’s foreign ministry said that images of dead bodies in Bucha were staged to justify more sanctions against Moscow and derail peace talks with Kyiv.

On Wednesday, to the south, a siege of the southern port of Mariupol – under bombardment through most of the invasion that began on Feb 24 – continued, trapping tens of thousands of residents without food, water or power.

“The humanitarian situation in the city is worsening,” British military intelligence said, while Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said people trying to flee would have to use their own vehicles.

Reuters could not immediately verify the British report.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said its team had successfully led a convoy of buses and private cars with more than 500 Mariupol residents to nearby Zaporizhzhia after the civilians fled on their own.

Vereshchuk said authorities would try to evacuate civilians trapped elsewhere through 11 humanitarian corridors.

Since pulling back from outside Kyiv last week, Russian forces have shifted their assault towards Ukraine’s south and east.

Ukraine’s general staff said the northeastern city of Kharkiv remained under attack, while authorities in the eastern region of Luhansk urged residents to leave an area it also expects to be the target of a new offensive.

Ten high-rise buildings were on fire in the eastern town of Sievierodonetsk after Russian shelling on Wednesday, the region’s governor said in an online post.

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