President Biden widened the slate of U.S. sanctions against Russia in response to military moves on Ukraine on Wednesday, but it was not enough to prevent Russian President Vladimir Putin from ordering a major escalation of his war against Ukraine.
The U.S. sanctions, announced just hours before Mr. Putin said in a nationally televised address he was launching a “special military operation” against Kyiv, targeted the Nord Stream 2 Russia-to-Germany pipeline and could carry far-reaching implications for European and global energy markets.
Mr. Biden and Western leaders are expected to announce an even broader and more punishing array of sanctions Thursday, as Russian forces appear to be breaking out of the pro-Russian separatist enclaves on Ukraine‘s far eastern border and have begun operations against Ukrainian government forces in the Greater Donbas region. Loud explosions could also be heard near the capital of Kyiv, the major city of Kharkhiv and other locations.
At an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting sought by Ukraine late Wednesday evening, U.S. U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Mr. Putin‘s declaration put the lie to repeated Russian assurances over recent weeks that no military action was in the works and that Moscow was still seeking a diplomatic end to the crisis.
Before the military operations launched in the early morning hours in Ukraine Thursday, a senior Defense Department official told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity that Russia has in place nearly all of the combat power it needs to move deep into Ukraine, well beyond the two breakaway regions Russian forces have entered that were controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.
With Russia having massed some 190,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, the official said roughly 80% of necessary units were ready to go forward and were positioned as close as 3 miles from the border. U.S. officials assessed that the Russian forces included more than 120 battalion tactical groups, dozens of battleships, jet fighters and ballistic weapons.
The Kremlin said late Wednesday night that Ukrainian separatists had sent a request for Russian military assistance in the face of “aggression” by the Ukrainian government. The Biden administration quickly called out the claim as propaganda and an attempted “false flag” for Moscow to create a pretext for an invasion.
Nord Stream 2
The flurry of developments threatened to overshadow Mr. Biden’s announcement of economic sanctions against Nord Stream 2 AG, as well as against corporate officials of the Swiss company that built the pipeline.
The move followed a tranche of economic sanctions that Mr. Biden imposed Tuesday against two top Russian banks and a collection of Russian elites. The U.S. took the measures after Russian President Vladimir Putin formally recognized the two Moscow-backed regions of eastern Ukraine as independent countries.
“These steps are another piece of our initial tranche of sanctions in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. As I have made clear, we will not hesitate to take further steps if Russia continues to escalate,” Mr. Biden said in a statement announcing the Nord Stream 2 sanctions.
Although the president had signaled that sanctions on Nord Stream 2 were likely, the move was a surprise to some. The administration waived Trump-era sanctions against the company building the pipeline last year.
The sanctions dovetail with German actions Tuesday to halt certification of the Nord Stream 2 project as the Ukraine crisis escalated. Berlin’s move was a blow to Mr. Putin’s plan to expand Russian control over Europe’s energy supply. Russia provides about one-third of the energy European nations use.
Construction of Nord Stream 2 was completed last year, although the pipeline was awaiting certification from German regulators before going online. It was built to deliver more than 50% of natural gas that Germans consume annually and generate as much as $15 billion to Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled energy corporation.
Analysts say the Nord Stream 2 sanctions also could backfire on Mr. Biden, given that Russia is one of the top oil exporters to the United States. Although a major economic hit to Moscow’s energy operations could cause economic pain for Mr. Putin, it may also impact energy consumers in the U.S. and Europe.
Oil and energy markets strategist Dan Dicker predicted Wednesday that most of the impact is likely to be felt in Europe and in Russia, which is widely regarded as a petroleum-based economy.
“It’s very delicate right now with oil prices going up, and it’s a political disaster here in the United States for Biden, as it would be for any president,” Mr. Dicker said in an interview, although he added that “in Europe, they have an even more critical problem because they’re short on energy supplies.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has said the Biden administration is considering tapping the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve if oil and gas prices rise any further.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told his citizens Tuesday night to fight for their country and that he would “raise the preparedness of the Ukrainian army to all possible changes in the operational situation.”
“We need to quickly replenish the Ukrainian army and other military formations,” Mr. Zelenskyy said. “As the supreme commander in chief of the armed forces of Ukraine, I issued a decree on the conscription of reservists in a special period.”
Just hours before Mr. Zelenskyy declared a state of emergency, several Ukrainian government websites became inaccessible.
Even before Mr. Putin announced the expanded military operation, Mr. Kirby told reporters that U.S. officials believed the Russians were “close to some sort of action” in Ukraine.
“Russian forces continue to assemble closer to the border and put themselves in an advanced stage of readiness to act,” Mr. Kirby said.
“Virtually any time now,” he said. “We believe they are ready.”
• Tom Howell Jr. and Ryan Lovelace contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
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