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West rejects Russia's rouble payments 'blackmail' as it rallies behind Ukraine

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By Reuters
'Russia will pay': West to warn Putin in trio of summits
'Russia will pay': West to warn Putin in trio of summits   -   Copyright  Thomson Reuters 2022

By Jarrett Renshaw and John Chalmers

BRUSSELS -NATO promised Kyiv new military support and assigned more troops to the alliance’s eastern flank while London and Washington imposed fresh sanctions on Moscow during a trio of summits on Thursday aimed at showing Western unity against Russia’s war in Ukraine.

NATO leaders meeting in Brussels agreed to help Ukraine protect itself against any chemical, biological or nuclear attacks, and a U.S. official said Washington and allies were also working to provide Kyiv with anti-ship missiles.

“The single most important thing is for us to stay unified and the world continue to focus on what a brute this guy is and all the innocent people’s lives that are being lost and ruined,” U.S. President Joe Biden told a news conference in Brussels, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We have to stay fully, totally, thoroughly united.”

However, the support pledges by leaders from countries that represent more than half of the world’s GDP fell short of satisfying Ukraine’s pleas for tighter sanctions, including an embargo on Russian energy.

Russia supplies 40% of the EU’s collective gas needs and more than a quarter of its oil imports, and countries most dependent on this supply – in particular Germany – are reluctant to take a step that would have a major economic impact.

In a move that made Europe’s dilemma worse, Putin said on Wednesday that “unfriendly” countries must start paying in roubles for oil and gas, which would mean paying Russia hard currency to buy the roubles.

Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa told reporters that “nobody will pay in roubles,” while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen rejected what she called blackmail.

BARBARISM

Ukraine is a former Soviet republic whose aspirations to join the EU and NATO drew Moscow’s ire. Russian forces attacked Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what Putin calls a “special military operation” aimed at destroying Ukraine’s military capabilities and “denazifying” it.

The invasion has killed thousands and driven a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people from their homes. The bombardment has hit residential areas, schools and hospitals in Ukrainian cities including Kharkiv and the besieged port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.

“Putin has already crossed the red line into barbarism,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said as London unveiled restrictions on Gazprombank and Alfa Bank. “The harder our sanctions … the more we can do to help Ukraine.”

However, NATO again turned down pleas by Kyiv to defend Ukraine’s skies by imposing a no-fly zone and said it will not send troops to Ukraine for fear of being dragged into a full-on military confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia.

“Allies do what they can to support Ukraine with weapons so Ukraine can defend itself,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said when asked about Ukraine’s demands for more help, adding that the level of support was already “unprecedented.”

NATO leaders said in a joint statement that they were “united and resolute in our determination to oppose Russia’s aggression, aid the government and the people of Ukraine, and defend the security of all allies.”

GLOBALFOODCRISIS

French President Emmanuel Macron said that the world faced an “unprecedented food crisis” that will be even worse in 12 to 18 months as Ukraine, a major grower of wheat, barley, corn and sunflower, will not be able to sow crops.

Western powers were ready to ramp up sanctions against Russia if necessary as they continue to isolate Moscow and force a ceasefire in Ukraine, Macron said.

The United States announced that it was targeting dozens of Russian defence companies and members of the ruling class with sanctions.

The 27-nation EU has rolled out four waves of sanctions against Moscow over the past month, but energy flows are the biggest loophole in measures that have otherwise largely frozen Russia out of world commerce.

EU leaders are expected, however, to agree at their summit to jointly buy gas and agree a deal with U.S. President Joe Biden to secure additional U.S. liquefied natural gas supplies.

WARNING TO CHINA

NATO, which has already beefed up its eastern flanks to 40,000 troops spread from the Baltic to the Black Sea, agreed to set up new combat units in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia.

The alliance also warned that China should “abstain from supporting Russia’s war effort in any way, and to refrain from any action that helps Russia circumvent sanctions.”

Biden said that China understood its economic future was more closely tied to the West than to Russia, after warning Beijing it could face consequences for aiding Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

The U.S. official said the G7 and the EU – which will hold a summit with China on April 1 – would make clear any transactions involving Russian gold reserves are covered by sanctions, in a move aimed at stopping Russia from evading the penalties.