US Sanctions Putin Inner Circle, Calls for Ukraine Aid as Russia Gains Ground

Washington on Thursday heaped another round of sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and requested $10 billion in aid for the people of Ukraine, hours after Russian and Ukrainian officials said Russian forces took control of a strategic Ukrainian port city and shelled major cities in a weeklong offensive that has forced more than 1 million people to flee the besieged country.

“Today I’m announcing that we’re adding dozens of names to the list, including one of Russia’s wealthiest billionaires, and I’m banning travel to America by more than 50 Russian oligarchs, their families and their close associates,” Biden said Thursday ahead of a Cabinet meeting. “And we’re going to continue to support the Ukrainian people with direct assistance.”

The administration requested $10 billion in supplemental funding from Congress “to deliver additional humanitarian, security and economic assistance in Ukraine and the neighboring region in the coming days and weeks,” said a statement from Shalanda Young, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget. That money, she said, will cover defense equipment, emergency food aid, U.S. troop deployments to neighboring countries and stronger sanctions enforcement.

Among the newly sanctioned Putin allies is Alisher Usmanov, one of Russia’s wealthiest individuals. German authorities have seized his 512-foot yacht, estimated to be worth nearly $600 million. Under the directive, his private jet is also open to seizure. The directive also bans more than 50 wealthy Russians from traveling to the U.S.

The sanctions list also includes some of Putin’s oldest friends, a former judo partner and others with connections to the mercenary Wagner Group, and Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov.

“One of the big factors is of course the proximity to President Putin,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “We want him to feel the squeeze. We want the people around him to feel the squeeze. I don’t believe this is going to be the last set of oligarchs.”

She also again ruled out Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s request for a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

“A no-fly zone requires implementation,” she said. “It would require, essentially, the U.S. military shooting down Russian planes and causing – prompting – a potential direct war with Russia, the exact step that we want to avoid.”

On the ground

Moscow’s attempt to quickly take over the Ukrainian capital has apparently stalled, but the military has made significant gains in the south in an effort to sever the country’s connection to the Black and Azov seas.

Local government officials and the Russian military confirmed the seizure of the strategic port of Kherson, the first city to fall in Russia’s week-old invasion of Ukraine, following days of disputed claims over who was in control. That city sits at the nexus of the Dneiper River and the Black Sea. A U.S. defense official said Washington was unable to confirm the development.

Despite Russian assaults on Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Mariupol, Britain’s Defense Ministry said Thursday that they all remained in Ukrainian hands.

“We are a people who in a week have destroyed the plans of the enemy,” Zelenskyy said in a video address early Thursday. “They will have no peace here. They will have no food. They will have here not one quiet moment.”

Russian troops were besieging the port city of Mariupol east of Kherson, an attempt Mayor Vadym Boichenko said was aimed at isolating Ukraine.

“They are trying to create a blockade here,” Boichenko said Thursday in a broadcast video. He said the Russians were attacking rail stations to prevent civilian evacuations and that the attacks had cut off water and power.

Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov cited expectations ahead of the invasion that Russia would quickly overtake Ukraine, writing on Facebook, “No one, neither in Russia nor in the West, believed that we would last a week.”  He added that while there were challenges ahead, Ukraine had “every reason to be confident.” 

Giving peace a (second) chance

Also on Thursday, the two sides held a second round of peace talks in Belarus and agreed to set up humanitarian corridors with cease-fire zones so that civilians could safely flee. Ukraine had pushed for a general cease-fire.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — who is also under direct U.S. sanctions — told reporters on Thursday that Russian forces would continue their effort to destroy Ukraine’s military infrastructure and would not allow its neighbor to represent a military threat to Russia.

In a 90-minute telephone conversation Thursday with Emmanuel Macron, Putin told the French president that Russia would achieve its goals, including the demilitarization and neutrality of Ukraine, by any means necessary, the Kremlin said in a statement.

Macron told his Russian counterpart that the war he started against Ukraine was a “major mistake,” according to a French official. “You are lying to yourself,” Macron told Putin about the feasibility of his goals, said the official.

Poland has taken in half of the more than 1 million refugees who have fled Ukraine in the past week, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The U.N. body said it expected 4 million people could leave Ukraine because of the conflict.

Ukraine’s emergency agency said Wednesday that Russia’s attacks had killed more than 2,000 people across the country.

Russia’s Defense Ministry put out its first casualty report, saying 498 of its troops had been killed in Ukraine, with more than 1,500 wounded.

Russians ‘stalled’ outside Kyiv

A senior U.S. defense official said Thursday that the Russian forces in northern Ukraine and outside Kyiv remained “largely stalled” despite U.S. assessments that 90% of the combat power that Russia prepared for the invasion had entered Ukraine.

The official said the cities in northern and eastern Ukraine, including Kyiv, Chernihiv and Kharkiv, were subjected Thursday to “heavy bombardment” but that Russian forces in the north were still facing stiff resistance.

“We continue to see them resist and fight and defend their territory and their resources quite effectively,” said the official, who added that Russia had launched more than 480 missiles since the invasion began.

Putin offered a more optimistic assessment Thursday, telling members of his security council on a video call that Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine was progressing “according to plan.”

“All tasks are being successfully carried out,” he said.  

The Pentagon announced Thursday that it was postponing a nuclear missile test launch scheduled for this week. The decision came days after Putin’s decision to put his nuclear forces on higher alert.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made the decision to delay the test of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile. Kirby added that the United States would like to see Moscow reciprocate by “taking the temperature down” in the crisis over Ukraine.  

VOA State Department Bureau Chief Nike Ching, National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin, Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb, Istanbul Foreign Correspondent Heather Murdock and White House Correspondent Anita Powell contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

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