Senators Bob Menendez and Lindsey Graham are both pushing the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act, which includes a wide range of financial penalties targeting Russia’s energy complex, financial industry and “political figures, oligarchs, and family members and other persons that facilitate illicit and corrupt activities, directly or indirectly, on behalf of Vladimir Putin”.
The Independent reported that the new threats of sanctions sent the Russian stock and government bond markets in a tailspin at the end of the week, while Russia’s debt insurance costs and currency volatility spiked.
The Act also includes support for NATO, proposing a required two-thirds majority in the Senate to make it harder for the US to leave the alliance. Plans to make it easier to transfer military hardware to NATO countries are also part of the move.
The global economy is rapidly slowing, and in 2019 a geopolitical flare-up seems increasingly likely. New sanctions suggest that the US will soon intensify its economic war against Russia.
Moscow has expressed anger and frustration over new US sanctions, and the Kremlin accused Washington of “racketeering”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists. “We see clear symptoms of emotional Russophobia.
“But behind the emotions … is an entirely pragmatic, assertive trade calculation, and … nothing less than an attempt to engage in dishonest competition.”
Frants Klintsevich, a member of the Defence and Security Committee of Russia’s upper house, called the prospect of new sanctions a “dangerous habit” similar to “smoking a pipe before breakfast, poisoning all those around”.
The head of Russia’s largest bank and its former economics minister, Herman Gref, noted that the sanctions would be bad for the already slowing economy. “We need to prepare for the very worst of situations,” Gref said.
Reuters meanwhile reported last month that Russian mercenaries were dispatched to Venezuela to provide security for President Nicolas Maduro as he struggles to deal with a coup led by Washington.
The contractors are believed to be from the Wagner Group, a group of private contractors that have been fighting in Syria and the Ukraine.
Russia, which has invested billions of dollars in Venezuela, has pledged to stand by the embattled Maduro. Yevgeny Shabayev, leader of a local chapter of a paramilitary group told Reuters he had heard the number of security contractors in Venezuela was roughly 400.
Russia’s defense ministry and Venezuela’s information ministry haven’t responded to requests for comment yet. Kremlin spokesman Peskov said they had “no such information” about the contractors.
Maduro hit out at the United States on Friday for “stealing” billions of dollars and offering “crumbs” in return as humanitarian aid, as Washington moved to sanction five officials close to the Venezuelan leader.
“They have stolen $30 billion and are offering four crumbs of rotten food,” said Maduro.
Tons of US aid is piling up in Venezuela’s neighbour Colombia, as opposition leader Juan Guaido hopes to benefit from Washingston’s meddling. Guaido has so far been recognised by 50 countries as the interim president.
But Maduro has described Guaido, a National Assembly speaker, as a “puppet” of the US, which is trying to secure access to Venezuela’s gold and vast oil reserves – the largest in the world. He called Guaido’s challenge to his authority “treason”.
The New York Times admitted that the Venezuelan opposition had created immense expectations, but that “it’s not at all clear they have a plan for actually fulfilling them”. Other opposition parties were never informed of Guaido’s plan to declare himself president, and their support have been tepid.
They may in the end join in the mediation talks Maduro has offered and which the UN, Uruguay and Mexico also support.
EU diplomats have meanwhile agreed to impose asset freezes and visa bans on a number of Russians involved in the capture and detention of 24 Ukrainian seamen during an incident near the Kerch Strait in November, sources told RFE/RL.
EU foreign ministers have not yet discussed Ukraine and they will meet in Brussels only on February 18, but the sanctions are expected to be approved by EU ambassadors later this month anyway. The timing of fresh sanctions appears to coincide with elections to be held in the Ukraine soon.
EU sanctions are believed to be targeting eight individuals who are either Russian officers involved in the Kerch Strait incident or Russian judges who oversaw the subsequent detention of the Ukrainians.