The US has joined the EU and UK in freezing the assets of Russian president Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister, under a fresh sanctions package intended to stiffen the west’s response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
President Joe Biden announced the sanctions on Putin and his team on Friday. In addition to Russia’s president and Sergei Lavrov, the country’s foreign minister, Washington also targeted General Valery Gerasimov, head of the country’s military, and Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister.
“It is exceedingly rare for Treasury to designate a head of state. President Putin joins a very small group that includes despots such as Kim Jong Un, Alexander Lukashenko, and Bashar al-Assad,” the Treasury said, referring to the leaders of North Korea, Belarus and Syria.
The US took the decision after Biden had a call with Ursula von der Leyen, European commission president, the White House said.
Christian Lindner, Germany’s finance minister, also on Friday suggested that Berlin was open to the possibility of cutting Russia off from the Swift international payments system, a move that the German government had previously suggested it would not support.
The sanctions on Putin and Lavrov follow similar measures the west has levelled against Russian banks and oligarchs in recent days in the hope of persuading Putin to change course in Ukraine — or at least make him pay an economic price for the invasion.
Foreign ministers approved the EU sanctions package at a meeting on Friday, along with measures against Russian banks and industry.
The UK will impose its own sanctions “imminently” against Putin and Lavrov, as Boris Johnson, prime minister, urged the west to take “immediate action” to oust Russia from the Swift international payments system to “inflict maximum pain on President Putin and his regime”.
Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, was dismissive of such measures, saying: “Neither Putin, nor Lavrov have accounts in Britain or anywhere else.”
Under the EU measures, Putin and Lavrov would not be subject to a ban on travelling, underlining the bloc’s willingness to keep symbolic diplomatic avenues open.
The other proposals would freeze some transactions with a wide range of Russian banks, bar a number of state-owned companies from launching listings on stock exchanges in the bloc and stop Russian nationals from making big deposits in EU banks.
The west has been facing calls to step up its pressure on Putin as he intensifies his assault on Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, on Friday criticised Europe for not imposing tough sanctions on Moscow, calling on Putin to negotiate in order to “stop the death”.
Directly sanctioning foreign leaders is rare for the EU. Among those targeted before are Assad and Lukashenko.
Speaking in Brussels on Thursday, Annalena Baerbock, German foreign minister, said: “We will hit the Putin system where it needs to be hit, not only economically and financially, but at its core of power. And that’s why we have to list not only oligarchs, but also the many members of parliament who have prepared these steps, and we are also now listing the president of the republic, Mr Putin and the foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.”
Von der Leyen said she expected the measures to have “maximum impact on the Russian economy and on the political elite”.
Paolo Gentiloni, the EU’s economics commissioner, said the second package was “very important and very effective” but would not be the last imposed by Europe.
The EU has also been discussing whether to sever the access of Russian banks to the Swift network. Bruno Le Maire, French finance minister, said on Friday the EU wanted to cut Russia off from the world’s financial system and that depriving the country of access to Swift was still an option.
Member states, including Germany and Italy, have been concerned that blocking Russia’s use of Swift would damage their own economies or financial systems. The move could, for instance, make transactions with Russian companies difficult for countries that buy its oil and gas.
Baerbock said the experience of cutting Iran out of the Swift system showed how broad the impact could be.
“It would also mean that people in Russia, for example, a granddaughter who lives in Europe would not be able to transfer money to her grandmother. That may sound small . . . but those who are responsible for this bloodshed will have ways and means, of course, to carry out their financial payments anyway,” the German foreign minister said.
Later on Friday, Lindner said Germany was willing to consider the move but needed to calculate the potential impact on its economy.
“We are open, but you have to know what you’re doing,” he said in Paris, according to Reuters.
One senior European banker said cutting Moscow off from Swift could backfire on western countries given Russia has a fledgling payments system and could seek to increase its financial connections with China.
Reporting by Eleni Varvitsioti and Henry Foy in Brussels, Victor Mallet in Paris, George Parker in London, Erika Solomon in Berlin and Javier Espinoza in Brussels