The US Senate is nearing a deal on sanctions against Russia as the Pentagon warns that President Vladimir Putin is continuing to build up Russian forces at the border with Ukraine.
A bill including economic measures to punish Russia in the event of a full-blown invasion was being finalised, with a plan to move it forward this week, according to Bob Menendez, the Democratic chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and James Risch, his top Republican counterpart.
“I believe that we will get there,” Menendez told CNN on Sunday. “We’ve been accommodating different views and we are committed, jointly, in a bipartisan way to defend Ukraine and to send Putin the message: it’ll be bloody and consequential.”
Menendez said some sanctions could be ready to be implemented immediately in response to Russia’s efforts to undermine the Ukraine government and launch cyber attacks. Others would be imposed only if Russia were to conduct deeper incursions into Ukraine on top of its 2014 annexation of Crimea and its actions to foment a proxy war in far eastern regions, which continues to smoulder.
Under discussion are economic countermeasures against the largest Russian banks and the country’s sovereign debt, among other penalties.
The White House has publicly backed efforts in Congress to impose sanctions on Russian financial institutions including Sberbank, VTB, Gazprombank and the Russian Direct Investment Fund. As well as financial sanctions, export-control measures to deprive Russia of sensitive technologies are also under consideration, as are curbs on the country’s energy sector.
Risch said some disagreements remained over sanctions against Russia’s gas pipeline across the Baltic Sea, the Nord Stream 2. “That’s going to be the last T crossed, I dotted, before we put the ball across the finish line.”
Russia is estimated to have moved more than 100,000 troops to its borders with Ukraine, giving it “multiple options” including an attack aimed at occupying the entire country, according to the US.
The Pentagon on Sunday warned that Putin was still boosting troop levels at the border this weekend.
“He can execute some of those options imminently,” John Kirby, press secretary, told Fox News. “Imminent means it could happen really, honestly, at any time. It depends on what Vladimir Putin might want to do.”
Putin “could do something on a small scale, he could do something on a fairly large scale,” Kirby said. “And he continues to add troops to that border with Ukraine. We’re watching that even over the course of this weekend.”
Leaders in Kyiv have criticised the hardening rhetoric, which one said played into Russia’s “psychological warfare”. In an interview on CBS on Sunday, Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the US, cautioned against “panic”.
Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, on Saturday refuted claims by US defence officials that Russia had shipped blood supplies close to its border with Ukraine, suggesting that an invasion of the country was imminent.
“Information is now being spread on the internet, citing anonymous sources, that Russia has allegedly sent blood supplies and other medical supplies for the wounded to the Ukrainian border,” Maliar said in a Facebook post.
“This information is not true. Such ‘news’ is an element of information and psychological warfare. The purpose of such information is to spread panic and fear in our society,” she added.
Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, on Friday warned that the escalating brinkmanship carried an economic cost.
“We don’t need this panic,” he said at a press conference, where he disputed some of the Pentagon’s previous assessments.
“How much does it cost to our country?”
Zelensky urged western backers to help Kyiv plug financial gaps as war fears have cut it off from international debt markets.
“We can’t handle this alone. We have to take money out [of our reserves] and stabilise our currency. It’s a very expensive price to pay,” Zelensky said, noting the country needs $4bn-$5bn now.
Despite these pleas, the US and its allies have prepared for conflict. The UK on Saturday said it was considering offering Nato a deployment of another 900 troops to Estonia — doubling the size of the British force in the Baltic state.
American military planners are also readying a force of 8,500 to deploy to Nato countries in eastern Europe in order to protect the alliance’s flank. Other allies, including three Baltic countries, have been hurriedly arming the US-backed Ukrainian military.
The chair of Russia’s security council, Nikolai Patrushev, on Sunday dismissed the idea that Russia was a threat to Ukraine.
“We do not want war. We don’t need it at all. Those who are pushing towards it, especially those from the west, they are pursuing some self-serving false goals of their own,” the Interfax news agency cited Patrushev as saying.