(Adds Timchenko's sale of Gunvor stake, EU plans; paragraphs 9,
* Moscow says U.S. will be "hit like a boomerang"
* Putin tells businessmen to bring assets home
* Duma approves treaty annexing Crimea
* EU discussing plan to reduce dependence on Russian energy
* Russian troops take over Ukrainian warships
By Steve Holland and Maria Tsvetkova
WASHINGTON/MOSCOW, March 20 U.S. President
Barack Obama raised the stakes in an East-West confrontation
over Crimea on Thursday by targeting some of Russian President
Vladimir Putin's closest long-time political and business allies
with personal sanctions.
The extension of visa bans and asset freezes into Putin's
inner circle came as Moscow rushed to consolidate the annexation
of the Black Sea peninsula, seized from Ukraine last month, and
to boost its military presence in the region.
Russian troops took over three Ukrainian warships in Crimea
on Thursday, using stun grenades in one incident, a Ukrainian
spokesman said. Kiev also said it had begun withdrawing its
border guards, surrounded and outnumbered by Russian forces,
from Crimea to the mainland.
The 20 names added to the U.S. blacklist included Kremlin
banker Yuri Kovalchuk and his Bank Rossiya, major oil and
commodities trader Gennady Timchenko and the brothers Arkady and
Boris Rotenberg, linked to big contracts on gas pipelines and at
the Sochi Olympics, as well as Putin's chief of staff and his
deputy, the head of military intelligence and a railways chief.
Most grew rich after being associated with Putin since the
former KGB officer began his ascent to power in the mayor's
office of St Petersburg in the 1990s.
In a statement explaining the sanctions, the U.S. Treasury
said: "Gennady Timchenko is one of the founders of Gunvor, one
of the world's largest independent commodity trading companies
involved in the oil and energy markets.
"Timchenko's activities in the energy sector have been
directly linked to Putin. Putin has investments in Gunvor and
may have access to Gunvor funds."
Putin has denied any link with Gunvor in the past. The
Swiss-based oil trading company said in a statement that Putin
had no ownership of Gunvor and "any understanding otherwise is
fundamentally misinformed and outrageous".
It also said Timchenko, who has Finnish as well as Russian
citizenship, had sold his 43 percent stake in Gunvor to its
chief executive, Torbjorn Tornqvist, on Wednesday as part of
what the company called a "contingency plan".
Moscow reacted by announcing its own sanctions against
senior U.S. politicians in retaliation against visa bans and
asset freezes imposed by Washington on its citizens, with the
Foreign Ministry saying U.S. action would "hit the United States
like a boomerang".
European Union leaders were meeting in Brussels to step up
their own measures against Russia. Officials said the EU would
add up to a dozen names to its sanctions list and cancel a
planned EU-Russia summit in Sochi, but it would not go as far as
Washington in hitting Putin's money men.
"We will be a step behind the Americans," a senior European
However, EU sources said the leaders were discussing a
radical plan to reduce their dependence on Russian energy by
agreeing to negotiate gas purchases collectively with Moscow
instead of country-by-country.
The EU would also accelerate work to upgrade cross-border
energy networks to reduce individual member states'
vulnerability to supply cuts, and speed up building new
liquefied natural gas import terminals to diversify suppliers.
Leaders were expected to ask the executive European
Commission to study further sanctions on trade, finance, arms
and energy in case Russia went further into Ukraine or moved to
destabilise other former Soviet states, the sources said.
BRING MONEY HOME
Russian forces took control of Crimea in late February after
Moscow-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was toppled
by protests sparked by his decision to spurn a trade deal with
the EU and seek closer ties with Moscow. The seizure has been
People in Crimea voted overwhelmingly to join Russia in a
referendum on Sunday which Kiev and the West branded illegal.
Only one member of Russia's State Duma lower house of
parliament voted against the annexation treaty on Thursday. The
Federation Council upper house will complete the ratification
process on Friday.
With Washington trying to tighten the screws on Moscow,
Putin told Russian company bosses to bring their assets home to
help the nation survive the sanctions and an economic downturn.
In a potentially ominous move, Obama said he had signed a
new executive order that clears the way for U.S. sanctions
against broad sections of the Russian economy, should Putin's
military make moves beyond Crimea and into southern and eastern
Ukraine which also have large Russian-speaking populations.
"We're imposing sanctions on more senior officials of the
Russian government," he said. "In addition, we are today
sanctioning a number of other individuals with substantial
resources and influence who provide material support to the
Russian leadership, as well as a bank that provides material
support to these individuals."
Washington announced a first round of sanctions on Monday
against 11 Russians and Ukrainians it said were involved with
the Crimean annexation. A U.S. official said the sanctions mean
Bank Rossiya - which has $10 billion in assets - would be
"frozen out of the dollar".
Those on the Russian list included former U.S. presidential
candidate Senator John McCain, Senate majority leader Harry Reid
and House of Representatives speaker John Boehner.
Like their Russian counterparts, the U.S. lawmakers laughed
off the sanctions or treated them as badge of honour.
McCain laced his response with sarcasm. "I guess this means
my spring break in Siberia is off, my Gazprom stock is lost, and
my secret bank account in Moscow is frozen," he said in a
statement. "Nonetheless, I will never cease my efforts on behalf
of the freedom, independence, and territorial integrity of
Ukraine, including Crimea."
EU MORE CAUTIOUS
Obama trumped European leaders for the second time in a week
by announcing tougher measures than they were planning just as
they sat down to try to resolve their differences on sanctions.
While Poland and former Soviet Baltic states that are now EU
members have pushed for a touch line, the main EU powers -
Germany, France and Britain - all have strong economic reasons
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told parliament in Berlin
that the 28 EU leaders would show they are ready to ramp up
punitive measures in a staged response against Russian officials
and move to economic sanctions if Putin went further.
"The EU summit today and tomorrow will make clear that we
are ready at any time to introduce phase-3 measures if there is
a worsening of the situation," she said.
Some diplomats read her statement as an implicit recognition
that Crimea was lost, and that only further steps by Russia to
destabilise Ukraine or intervene in other post-Soviet republics
would trigger sanctions that could hurt convalescing Western
economies as well as Moscow's economy.
Some of Russia's largest companies are registered abroad
where they may benefit from lower tax rates but also may enjoy
some distance from the Kremlin and feel beyond its reach.
Without referring to the annexation of Crimea or to slowing
economic growth, Putin said it would also be in the bosses'
interests to support the Russian economy.
"Russian companies should be registered on the territory of
our nation, in our country and have a transparent ownership
structure," Putin told heads of Russia's largest companies. "I
am certain that this is also in your interests."
(Additional reporting by Darya Kobzeva, Maria Kiselyova and
Ludmila Danilova, Thomas Grove and Steve Gutterman in Moscow,
Jeff Mason and David Storey in Washington, Noah Barkin in
Berlin, Luke Baker, Jan Strupczewski, Adrian Croft and Martin
Santa in Brussels, Natalia Zinets and Pavel Polityuk in Kiev,
Tom Miles in Geneva; writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by David
Stamp and Mohammad Zargham)