US, UK, Europe and Canada to cut some Russian banks from Swift system

A fresh round of sanctions on Russia to bar some banks from the Swift system have been vowed in a joint declaration by the European Commission, France, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom, Canada and United States.

The group also said they would prevent the Russian Central Bank using its reserves to undermine the effect of existing sanctions, which have been announced in waves by international governments since the invasion of Ukraine this week.

It followed mounting public pressure to do more to assist Ukraine and push back against Russia, on a day when thousands of people demonstrated against the invasion in cities across Europe.

“We stand with the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people in their heroic efforts to resist Russia’s invasion,” read the surprise joint declaration, released just before midnight in Brussels. “We will hold Russia to account and collectively ensure that this war is a strategic failure for Putin.”

In the statement, the group vowed to set up a “transatlantic taskforce” to hunt down the assets of sanctioned individuals and freeze them.

It also committed to take new measures “on additional Russian officials and elites close to the Russian government, as well as their families, and their enablers to identify and freeze the assets they hold in our jurisdictions”.

They declared they would work together to counter hybrid war tactics from Russia, including disinformation.

In a statement, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen accused the Russian army of “barbaric actions”.

“The European Union and its partners are working to cripple Putin’s ability to finance his war machine,” Ms von der Leyen said.

“We will stop Putin from using his war chest. We will paralyze the assets of Russia’s central bank. This will freeze its transactions. And it will make it impossible for the central bank to liquidate its assets.”

Cutting off Russian banks from the Swift system, a Belgian-based body that acts as an intermediary in bank transactions, would “effectively block Russian exports and imports”, she said.

The list of banks to be affected was not named. The group said they were prepared to take still further measures “to hold Russia to account for its attack on Ukraine.”

On Sunday European Union foreign ministers will come together for a virtual meeting to adopt further measures in support of Ukraine and against “aggression by Russia”, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said late on Saturday.

“I will propose a package of emergency assistance for the Ukrainian armed forces, to support them in their heroic fight,” he said on Twitter.

Meanwhile, the Department of Foreign Affairs has told Irish citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Russia. In an update to travel guidance, the department said: “Due to the ongoing disruption to flight services to and from Russia, the Department of Foreign Affairs is advising citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Russia at this time.

“Further flight cancellations and uncertainty on travel routes from Russia are expected in the coming days. “Citizens with plans to depart from Russia should consult closely with their airline and/or travel agent, and consider booking flights sooner than planned, in case of widening disruptions in the coming period.”

Russian strikes

Russian troops continued to press their offensive against Kyiv as well as other cities across Ukraine on Saturday, as residents sought shelter in the capital’s metro system and in bases during a third day of fierce bombardment.

As Russian strikes continued to pound Kyiv, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, refused a US offer to evacuate, insisting he would stay. “The fight is here,” he said as street fighting continued, largely around the edges of the city.

Mr Zelenskiy also offered renewed assurance that the country’s military would stand up to the Russian invasion. In a video recorded in the street close to the government quarter, he said he remained in the city and that claims the Ukrainian military would put down arms were false.

At a later press conference, he said: “We are successfully holding back the enemy’s attacks. We know we are defending our land and the future of our children. Kyiv and the key areas are controlled by our army.

“The occupiers wanted to set up their puppet in our capital. They didn’t succeed. On our streets, there was a proper fight going on.”

Ukraine’s health minister reported on Saturday that 198 people had been killed, including three children, and that more than 1,000 others had been wounded since the Russian offensive started before dawn on Thursday with massive air and missile strikes and troops forging into Ukraine from the north, east and south.

Among the Kyiv buildings hit in the latest wave of Russian strikes was a high-rise residential building. Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, posted an image showing a gaping hole in one side of the building and ravaged apartments on several floors.

“We are all scared and worried. We don’t know what to do then, what’s going to happen in a few days,” said Lucy Vashaka (20) a worker at a small Kyiv hotel.

An intelligence update by the UK’s defense ministry on Saturday said Russia had yet to gain control of airspace over Ukraine and that the majority of Russian forces were still about 29km (18 miles) from Kyiv.

Counterattacks

With Kyiv’s defenders fending off Russian attacks in the early hours of Saturday, there were reports of Ukrainian counterattacks in some places previously claimed by Russian forces, including Sumy in the country’s east.

A resident in Kherson – which Russia claimed to have taken – who was reached by the Guardian by phone said that while Russian troops were in the city there was continuing fighting and the Ukrainian military had blown up a key bridge into the city.

The Ukrainian military claimed to have shot down two Russian transport planes loaded with paratroopers, although this could not be confirmed and the Russian military did not comment on either plane.

There was evidence that in some areas Russian forces were facing mounting logistical difficulties, with Ukrainian-language social media accounts posting footage of captured Russian soldiers and reports of shortages of vehicle fuel and food for troops.

Ukraine appeared to be winning mounting diplomatic support for expelling Russia from the international Swift banking system, with the office of the Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, saying it would support any EU move on sanctions and Cyprus, which has extensive banking links with Russia, indicating that it would no longer object to the move. A decision is expected within days.

“We already have almost full support from EU countries for disconnecting Russia from Swift. I hope that Germany and Hungary will have the courage to support this decision. We have the courage to defend our homeland, to defend Europe,” Mr Zelenskiy said on Saturday.

Estonia’s prime minister, Kaja Kallas, said the country was banning Russian flights from its airspace, and France said it had decided to send defensive military equipment to Ukraine.

As large numbers of Ukrainians in the country’s south and east have sought to flee, including into neighboring Hungary and Poland, queues at some border crossings snaked back for 19km (12 miles) or more. Evacuation trains were organized from cities, including Lviv, to help people leave. An estimated 120,000 people have fled, including 100,000 into Poland since Thursday.

Resistance

It was unclear in the fog of war how much of Ukraine was still under Ukrainian control and how much Russian forces have seized.

Western governments claimed stiff Ukrainian resistance had slowed the Russian advance, and Russia does not yet control Ukraine’s skies.

Ukraine’s Infrastructure Ministry said a Russian missile was shot down before dawn on Saturday as it headed for the dam of the sprawling water reservoir that serves Kyiv, and Ukraine said a Russian military convoy was destroyed near the city early on Saturday.

In addition to Kyiv, the Russian assault appeared to focus on Ukraine’s coastline, stretching from the Black Sea port of Odesa, in the west near the border with Romania, to the Azov Sea port of Mariupol in the east.

If the Russian troops succeed, Ukraine will be cut off from access to all of its sea ports, which are vital for its economy.

In Mariupol, Ukrainian soldiers guarded bridges and blocked people from the seashore area amid concerns the Russian navy could launch an assault from the sea.

The Russian military said on Friday that they claimed control of Melitopol, about 35km (22 miles) inland from the Sea of ​​Azov.

The movement of Russian troops after less than three days of fighting further imperilled a country clinging to independence in the face of a broad assault, which threatened to topple Ukraine’s democratic government and scramble the post-Cold War world order.

Western officials believe Vladimir Putin is determined to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with a regime of his own. The invasion represents Mr Putin’s boldest effort yet to redraw the map of Europe and revive Moscow’s Cold War-era influence. It has triggered an international response including direct sanctions on Mr Putin.

The US government urged Mr Zelenskiy on Saturday to evacuate from Kyiv but he turned down the offer, according to a senior American intelligence official with direct knowledge of the conversation, saying he needed anti-tank ammunition but “not a ride”.

The Russian invasion was anticipated for weeks by the US and western allies and was denied to be in the works for just as long by Mr Putin.

Putin has not disclosed his ultimate plans for Ukraine. His foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, gave a hint, saying: “We want to allow the Ukrainian people to determine its own fate.”

Mr Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Russia recognized Mr Zelenskiy as Ukraine’s president, but he would not say how long the Russian military operation could last.

Penalties

The United States and other Nato allies have sent weapons and other aid to Ukraine, which is not a Nato member. Nato member nations also have beefed up their troops in allied countries in eastern Europe, but ruled out deploying troops to fight Russia.

Instead, the US, the European Union and other countries have slapped wide-ranging sanctions on Russia, freezing the assets of Russian businesses and individuals including Mr Putin and his foreign minister.

French maritime officials seized a Russian-flagged cargo ship carrying cars for potential sanctions breaches and took it to a port for investigation.

Russia remained unbowed, vetoing a UN Security Council resolution demanding that it stop attacking Ukraine and withdraw troops immediately.

The 11-1 vote, with China, India and the United Arab Emirates abstaining, showed significant opposition to Russia’s invasion of its smaller, militarily weaker neighbour.

A senior Russian official on Saturday shrugged off the wide-ranging sanctions slapped on Russia as a reflection of Western “political impotence”.

Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, warned that Moscow could react to the sanctions by opting out of the last remaining nuclear arms pact, freezing Western assets and cutting diplomatic ties with nations in the West.

“There is no particular need in maintaining diplomatic relations,” Mr Medvedev said. “We may look at each other in binoculars and gunsights.” – Additional reporting: Guardian/AP/Reuters