Russia bans entry to US lawmakers, officials

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 6, 2014, before the House Ways and Means Committee hearing to present President Obama’s fiscal 2015 federal budget proposals. Before budget discussions, Lew made a statement about actions being taken in response to the Russian takeover of Ukraine in the Crimea. The Obama administration slapped new visa restrictions Thursday on pro-Russian opponents of the new Ukraine government in Kiev and cleared the way for financial sanctions as the West began punishing Moscow for its occupation of Ukraine's Crimea region. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 6, 2014, before the House Ways and Means Committee hearing to present President Obama’s fiscal 2015 federal budget proposals. Before budget discussions, Lew made a statement about actions being taken in response to the Russian takeover of Ukraine in the Crimea. The Obama administration slapped new visa restrictions Thursday on pro-Russian opponents of the new Ukraine government in Kiev and cleared the way for financial sanctions as the West began punishing Moscow for its occupation of Ukraine's Crimea region. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders said Thursday they will hit more people with a travel ban and asset freeze, closing in on President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle to punish him in the escalating crisis over the Russian annexation of the Crimea peninsula.

They also announced plans to scrap a scheduled EU-Russia summit in June as part of the intensifying standoff over Ukraine, which has turned into one of the biggest political crisis in Europe since the Cold War.

“We need to prepare to take further steps and we need to do it together,” said Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. “A strong Europe is the last thing that Putin wants. He wants to split us up.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel said beyond increasing the number of Russians and Crimeans affected by asset freezes and travel bans — initially at 21 politicians and military commanders — the leaders would prepare stronger measures for future use, which would include economic sanctions and an arms embargo.

As Europe promised to get tougher, President Barack Obama announced the United States is also levying a new round of sanctions on individuals in Russia. Russia hit back, imposing entry bans on nine U.S. lawmakers and officials in response to Washington’s sanctions.

President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania said the EU would not be far behind the United States.

“It is already time to target the close circle of Putin,” she said. “This list is not yet large enough and sufficient and is very low-level.” The final number of officials was expected late Thursday.

Beyond punishing Russia on Thursday, the EU also wanted to show backing for Ukraine, which lost Crimea to Moscow on Tuesday.

British Prime Minster David Cameron said the two-day summit would also focus on strengthening Ukraine’s fledgling government, calling on the 28 EU nations’ need to bolster the new Ukrainian authorities with political commitments and economic aid.

Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk will sign a political agreement Friday with EU leaders, underscoring Europe’s commitment to the new leadership in Kiev.

Speaking to France-24 television from Brussels, he called the agreement “the first big tremendous step to make Ukraine really a part of big Europe.”

“We do understand that this is only the first step,” Yatsenyuk said. “But this will pave the way to real reforms … that my country urgently needs.”

Despite the tough talk, there also is concern in Europe about inflicting too much economic damage as the continent crawls out of a crippling financial crisis.

The EU is Moscow’s biggest trading partner, and Russia is the EU’s third-largest partner, mostly thanks to exports of raw materials such as oil and gas. Because of the multi-billion trade exchanges, any step toward economic sanctions will not be taken lightly.

“The Russian economy is already hurt by what Putin is doing,” Reinfeldt said, adding that a spree of retaliatory sanctions would hurt everyone.

“We need to prepare ourselves and that means, of course, hurting ourselves in a way,” he said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry made the move minutes after President Barack Obama announced a new round of sanctions. The ministry said “the use of sanctions is a double-edged sword that will boomerang against the United States.”

A look at Obama’s advisers and the U.S. lawmakers targeted by Russian sanctions are as follows.

OBAMA ADVISERS:

— Caroline Atkinson, a deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs.

— Daniel Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to Obama.

— Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.

These three officials conceivably played a role in crafting the specific sanctions. The White House is aware of their inclusion on Russia’s sanctions list but declined comment.

U.S. LAWMAKERS:

— John Boehner, a Republican congressman from Ohio, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and 2nd in the line of succession for the presidency. Boehner has supported Obama’s pursuit of sanctions to respond to “Russian aggression” and has urged the administration to speed up the permit process to increase U.S. natural gas exports to counter Putin. “The speaker is proud to be included on a list of those willing to stand against Putin’s aggression,” his spokesman said.

— Harry Reid, a Democratic senator from Nevada who runs the U.S. Senate, sets the legislative agenda.

— John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona who lost the 2008 presidential race to Obama. McCain has called for stronger punitive measures against Russia, calling Obama’s responses timid. “I guess this means my spring break in Siberia is off, my Gazprom stock is lost, and my secret bank account in Moscow is frozen. Nonetheless, I will never cease my efforts on behalf of the freedom, independence, and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea,” he said. McCain had traveled to Ukraine to support the protesters who forced President Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia last month.

— Robert Menendez, a Democratic senator from New Jersey who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Menendez criticized Putin’s annexation of Crimea as a “reckless and unacceptable act that contravenes all international norms and laws” and said it called for a swift response from the U.S., Europe and other allies. Menendez tweeted: “If standing up for democracy and sovereignty in Ukraine means I’m sanctioned by Putin, I’ll take it.”

— Mary Landrieu, a Democratic senator from Louisiana who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Landrieu, who is seeking re-election this year to a fourth term, had strongly criticized the Russian government after it ended American adoptions of Russian children.

— Dan Coats, a Republican senator from Indiana and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He co-sponsored a resolution, which passed the Senate unanimously, that condemned the Russian military seizure of Ukraine and called on Obama to “use all appropriate economic elements of U.S. national power” in coordination with allies to protect Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and economic integrity. Coats tweeted Thursday: “While I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to go on vacation with my family in Siberia this summer, I am honored to be on this list.”

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