The mayor of Ukraine’s second-largest city was shot in the back and pro-Russia insurgents seized more government buildings Monday as the U.S. hit Russia with more sanctions for allegedly fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine.
Armed insurgents tacitly backed by Moscow are seeking more autonomy in the region — possibly even independence or annexation with Russia. Ukraine’s acting government and the West have accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest, which they fear Moscow could use as a pretext for an invasion.
Last month, Russia annexed Crimea weeks after seizing control of the Black Sea peninsula.
In a bid to ratchet up the pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. President Barack Obama announced new sanctions on seven Russian officials and 17 companies with links to Putin’s inner circle. The U.S. is also revoking licenses for high-tech items that could be used by the Russian military.
The White House has said Russia’s involvement in the recent violence in eastern Ukraine is indisputable and warned that the U.S. and its partners were prepared to impose deeper penalties if Russia’s provocations continue.
Obama announced the sanctions while traveling in the Philippines, the last stop on a weeklong trip to Asia. He said that while his goal was not to target Putin personally, he was seeking to “change his calculus with respect to how the current actions that he’s engaging in could have an adverse impact on the Russian economy over the long haul.”
The U.S. sanctions were followed closely by new penalties from the European Union. Diplomats said the 28-nation EU decided to add 15 more officials to its Russia sanctions list.
Meantime, Hennady Kernes, the mayor of Kharkiv, was shot in the back Monday morning, underwent surgery and “doctors are fighting for his life,” city hall said.
Kharkiv city hall spokesman Yuri Sydorenko told the Interfax news agency the mayor was shot while cycling on the outskirts of the city. Officials have not commented on who could be behind the attack.
Interfax quoted Valery Boiko, a Kharkiv surgeon who operated on Kernes, said the mayor’s life is still under threat.
Kernes was a staunch opponent of the pro-West Maidan movement that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych in February and was widely viewed as the organizer of activists sent to Kiev from eastern Ukraine to harass those demonstrators.
But he has since softened his stance toward the new Kiev government. At a meeting of eastern Ukrainian leaders and acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk earlier this month, Kernes insisted he does not support the pro-Russia insurgents and backed a united Ukraine.
Kharkiv is in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia gunmen have seized government buildings and police stations, set up roadblocks or staged protests to demand greater autonomy or outright annexation by Russia. But unlike the neighboring Donetsk region, Kharkiv has been largely unaffected by the insurgency and Kernes has been credited for this. Its regional administration building was briefly seized earlier this month but promptly cleared of pro-Russia protesters.
On Monday, masked militants with automatic weapons seized another city hall building and a police station in eastern Ukraine, this time in Kostyantynivka, 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the Russian border. The city is 35 kilometers (22 miles) south of Slovyansk, a major city that has been in insurgents’ hands for more than three weeks now.
After the seizure, about 15 armed men guarded the city hall building. Some posed for pictures with residents while others distributed St. George’s ribbons, the symbol of the pro-Russia movement.
Russia announced new military exercises along its border with Ukraine last week, unnerving Ukraine and the West. NATO has said Russia has up to 40,000 troops stationed in regions along the border.
On Monday, Moscow turned down Kiev’s request to visit the military exercises. Russia’s foreign ministry said the Geneva accord that Ukraine and Russia signed this month does not contain any restrictions of what the Russian army can do on its own territory.
Meanwhile, the increasingly ruthless pro-Russia insurgency is turning to an ominous new tactic: kidnapping. About 40 people are being held hostage in makeshift jails in Slovyansk — including journalists, pro-Ukraine activists and seven military observers from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, Ukraine’s Security Service said Monday.
The German government on Monday decried the seizure of the European military observers and called for their immediate release. Eight observers, including three German officers, were detained Friday on allegations they were spying for NATO. One Swedish officer among them was released Sunday.
Pro-Russia militants in camouflage and black balaclavas paraded some of the captive military observers before the media on Sunday. They also showed three Ukrainian security guards bloodied, blindfolded, stripped of their trousers and shoes, their arms bound with packing tape.
German captive Col. Axel Schneider spoke at Sunday’s news conference — under armed guard — saying they were on an OSCE diplomatic mission and were not spies.
The Washington sanctions were expanded to include seven Russian government officials and 17 companies with links to President Vladimir Putin.
Among the targets of the new sanctions is Igor Sechin, the president of state oil company Rosneft, who has worked for Putin since the early 1990s. Sechin was seen as the mastermind behind the 2003 legal assault on private oil company Yukos and its founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who at the time was Russia’s richest man. The most lucrative parts of Yukos were taken over by Rosneft, making it Russia’s largest company. Rosneft has a major partnership deal with ExxonMobil.
Even with the new measures, Obama voiced pessimism about whether they would be enough to change Putin’s calculus.
“We don’t yet know whether it’s going to work,” he said.
Also on the list of those sanctioned by the U.S. Monday are Aleksei Pushkov, the Kremlin-connected head of Russian parliament’s lower house, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, and Sergei Chemezov, another longtime Putin ally. The White House said Putin has known Chemezov, CEO of the state-owned holding company Rostec, since the 1980s, when they both lived in the same apartment building in East Germany.
The company-specific sanctions will affect entities like Transoil, a freight rail operator, and other infrastructure companies involved in electrical and gas pipeline construction. The U.S. also sanctioned two entities it alleges are owned or controlled by Bank Rossiya, which is owned by members of Putin’s inner circle.
Three diplomats separately confirmed to The Associated Press ambassadors of the EU’s 28 nations on Monday signed off to broadening the bloc’s travel ban and asset freeze sanctions. The decision still requires formal approval from the EU’s national governments but officials said that was a mere rubberstamp procedure expected to be completed within the coming hours.
The names of the individuals targeted by the EU weren’t immediately released pending the official publication in the bloc’s legal journal early Tuesday.
Neither the U.S. nor Europe plans to announce broader sanctions on Russia’s key industries this week, though Obama said they were keeping those measures “in reserve” in case the situation worsens and Russia launches a full military incursion into eastern Ukraine. Among the targets of those so-called sector sanctions could be Russia’s banking, defense and energy industries.