DONETSK, Ukraine — The United States imposed new sanctions on allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, prompting Moscow to denounce “Cold War” tactics amid more violence in eastern Ukraine.
Banning visas and freezing assets of the likes of Putin’s friend Igor Sechin, head of oil giant Rosneft, also drew fire from President Barack Obama’s domestic critics, who called it a “slap on the wrist,” even as European allies wrangled over how to follow suit without badly hurting their own economies.
The new round of sanctions, following those imposed last month when Russia annexed Crimea, barely registered in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Moscow rebels were holding a group of German and other OSCE military observers for a fourth day.
Despite a Ukrainian military operation to contain them, the militants extended their grip by seizing key public buildings in another town in Donetsk region. In the regional capital, Donetsk, club-wielding pro-Russian activists broke up a rally by supporters of the Western-backed government in Kiev.
And the high-profile mayor of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, was badly wounded by a gunman, raising fears of further unrest in a Russian-speaking region that has seen less trouble of late than the neighbouring provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.
U.S. sanctions were aimed, Washington officials said, at “cronies” of Putin. Seven men, including Sechin, were targeted by visa bans and freezing of any U.S. assets, and 17 companies were also named. EU states added 15 names to its blacklist and will reveal them on Tuesday.
“The goal is not to go after Mr. Putin personally,” Obama said. “The goal is to change his calculus with respect to how the current actions that he’s engaging in in Ukraine could have an adverse impact on the Russian economy over the long haul.”
There was little quick sign of a change in the calculus for Putin, who critics say is stirring up fear among ethnic Russians so as to redraw post-Soviet borders and rebuild Moscow’s empire.
“Washington is in effect reviving … an old method of restricting normal cooperation, from Cold War times, essentially chasing itself into a dark, dusty closet of a bygone era,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, describing the sanctions as illegitimate, uncivilized and in breach of international law.
Also Monday, Russia’s defense minister expressed concern about what he called an unprecedented increase in U.S. and NATO military activity near Russia’s borders and urged U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to help “turn down the rhetoric” over the Ukraine crisis.
Defense Minster Sergei Shoigu held a “candid” hour-long telephone conversation with Hagel and the men agreed to remain in contact, the Russian ministry said in a statement that suggested no other agreement emerged from the call.
Shoigu told Hagel that Russian forces which had further alarmed the West by starting drills near the border last week after Ukraine launched an operation against the separatists had since returned to their permanent positions, the ministry said.
But it gave no indication of whether the overall number of Russian troops deployed near the Ukrainian border, which NATO has put at about 40,000, along with tanks, aircraft and other equipment, had been reduced.
Both sides continue to offer diametrically mirror-image versions of events in Ukraine. The West sees the pro-Western leaders who took power after Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovich fled to Russia in February as legitimate and believes Putin is trying to undermine their efforts to hold an election.
For Moscow, however, they are “fascists” and “putschists,” anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalists against whom the Russian-speakers of Crimea and the east have risen up in self-defense — a view it broadcasts into Ukraine on state-run Russian media.