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'Thugs and bullies': Nations sanction Russia over Ukraine

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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison talks about the situation in Ukraine at a news conference in Sydney, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022. Morrison says targeted financial sanctions and travel bans would be the first measures in response to Russian aggression toward Ukraine. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

TOKYO – World leaders sought Wednesday to back up their tough words over Russia's aggression against Ukraine, announcing financial sanctions, trade and travel bans and other measures meant to pressure Moscow to pull back from the brink of war.

Even as they ramped up penalties, however, nations in Asia and the Pacific also prepared for the possibility of both economic pain, in the form of cuts to traditional energy and grain supply lines, and retaliation from Russian cyberattacks.

“We can’t have some suggestion that Russia has some just case here that they’re prosecuting. They’re behaving like thugs and bullies, and they should be called out as thugs and bullies,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said while announcing targeted financial sanctions and travel bans as a first step in response to Russian aggression toward Ukraine.

The possibility of imminent war in Ukraine has raised fears not only of massive casualties but of widespread energy shortages and global economic chaos.

The punitive actions in Asia followed sanctions levied by U.S. President Joe Biden and European leaders against Russian oligarchs and banks in response to Russia massing 150,000 troops on three sides of Ukraine. While the larger army has yet to move, Russian forces have rolled into rebel-held portions of eastern Ukraine after Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized those areas’ independence.

In Japan, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced sanctions targeting Russia and the two separatist Ukrainian regions.

Kishida told reporters that Tokyo will ban any new issuance and distribution of Russian government bonds in Japan because of “a series of actions Russia has been taking in Ukraine.”

Kishida said Japan will also stop issuing visas to people linked to the two Ukrainian rebel regions and will freeze their assets in Japan. Tokyo will also ban trade with the two areas. He said Japanese officials are finalizing further details and added that Japan could increase sanctions if the situation worsens.

Japan opened a temporary office in Lviv, in western Ukraine, to help evacuate about 120 Japanese citizens, and has arranged chartered flights in nearby countries, Kishida said.

Officials in South Korea, which relies on imports to meet nearly all fossil fuel demand, held emergency meetings Wednesday to weigh how seriously events in Ukraine would hurt their country’s economy.

The fallout has so far been limited, but First Vice Finance Minister Lee Eog-weon said things could worsen if the situation in Ukraine escalates and there's a "disruption of energy supply chains and an increase in market volatility.”

While South Korea relies heavily on imports from Russia and Ukraine for wheat and corn, Lee said the country has enough reserves to last until June or July.

The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy also discussed ways to secure alternative energy supplies in case the Ukraine crisis disrupts the current methods.

U.S. officials have said an invasion is all but inevitable. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled plans for a Thursday meeting in Geneva with his Russian counterpart, saying it would not be productive and that Russia’s actions indicated Moscow was not serious about a peaceful path to resolving the crisis.

More than two dozen European Union members unanimously agreed to levy their own initial set of sanctions against Russian officials. Germany also said it was halting the process of certifying the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia — a lucrative deal long sought by Moscow but criticized by the United States for increasing Europe’s reliance on Russian energy.

The United States moved to cut off Russia’s government from Western finance, sanctioning two of its banks and blocking it from trading its debt on American and European markets. The Biden administration’s actions hit civilian leaders in Russia’s leadership hierarchy and two Russian banks considered especially close to the Kremlin and Russia’s military, with more than $80 billion in assets. That includes freezing all of those banks’ assets under U.S. jurisdictions.

Australia's cabinet Wednesday approved sanctions and travel bans that target eight members of the Russian Security Council, and agreed to align with the United States and Britain by targeting two Russian banks.

"It’s important that we play our part in the broader international community to ensure that those who are financing, profiting from an autocratic and authoritarian regime that is invading its neighbor should have nowhere to run and nowhere to hide when it comes to trying to move their money around,” said Morrison, the prime minister.

Australia also warned businesses to prepare for retaliation through Russian cyberattacks.

There was a dissenting voice amid Asia’s general tendency to back U.S.-style sanctions, as Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said Beijing is opposed to new unilateral sanctions imposed on Russia.

“On the Ukraine issue, unlike the U.S., which keeps sending weapons to Ukraine, creating fear and panic and even playing up the threat of war, China has been calling on all parties to respect and pay attention to each other’s legitimate security concerns, work together to solve problems through negotiations and consultations, and maintain regional peace and stability,” Hua said at a daily briefing.

Hua did not mention Russia’s huge deployment of troops on the Ukrainian border or efforts by the United States, France and others to engage Russia diplomatically.

In New Zealand, Russian Ambassador Georgii Zuev was summoned to meet with top diplomatic officials and “to hear New Zealand’s strong opposition to the actions taken by Russia in recent days,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta in a statement. Mahuta is currently traveling abroad.

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the world is facing “the biggest global peace and security crisis in recent years.” He called Russia’s declaration of the “so-called `independence’” of separatist areas in eastern Ukraine a violation of its territorial integrity and accused Moscow of “the perversion of the concept of peacekeeping.”

He urged the international community to rally “to save the people of Ukraine and beyond from the scourge of war” without further bloodshed.

In Washington, lawmakers from both parties in Congress displayed a largely unified front backing an independent Ukraine and vowing continued U.S. support, even as some pushed for swifter and even more severe sanctions on Russia.

On Tuesday, members of Russia’s upper house, the Federation Council, voted unanimously to allow Putin to use military force outside the country — effectively formalizing a Russian military deployment to the rebel regions, where an eight-year conflict has killed nearly 14,000 people.

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AP writers around the world contributed to this story.