US Sanctions Putin Inner Circle; Russia Takes Control of Ukrainian Port City 

Washington on Thursday piled another round of sanctions on a circle of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest allies, hours after Russian and Ukrainian officials said Russian forces had taken control of the strategic Ukrainian port city of Kherson and had shelled major cities in an offensive that has forced more than 1 million people to flee the country.

Among the newly sanctioned oligarchs is close Putin ally Alisher Usmanov, one of Russia’s wealthiest individuals. German authorities have seized his 512-foot yacht, estimated to be worth nearly $600 million. Under the directive, his private jet is also open to seizure. The directive also bans more than 50 wealthy Russians from traveling to the U.S.

“Today I’m announcing that we’re adding dozens of names to the list, including one of Russia’s wealthiest billionaires, and I’m banning travel to America by more than 50 Russian oligarchs, their families and their close associates,” President Joe Biden said Thursday ahead of a Cabinet meeting. “And we’re going to continue to support the Ukrainian people with direct assistance.”

The sanctions list also includes some of Putin’s oldest friends, a former judo partner and others with connections to the mercenary Wagner Group, and Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov.

“One of the big factors is of course the proximity to President Putin,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “We want him to feel the squeeze. We want the people around him to feel the squeeze. I don’t believe this is going to be the last set of oligarchs. Making them a priority and a focus of our individual sanctions is something the president has been focused on.”


On the ground

Meanwhile, Moscow’s attempt to quickly take over the Ukrainian capital has apparently stalled, but the military has made significant gains in the south in an effort to sever the country’s connection to the Black and Azov seas.

Local government officials and the Russian military confirmed the seizure of Kherson, the first city to fall in Russia’s week-old invasion of Ukraine, following days of disputed claims over who was in control. A U.S. defense official said Washington was unable to confirm the development.

Despite Russian assaults on Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Mariupol, they all remained in Ukrainian hands, Britain’s Defense Ministry said Thursday.

“We are a people who in a week have destroyed the plans of the enemy,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video address early Thursday. “They will have no peace here. They will have no food. They will have here not one quiet moment.”

Russian troops were also besieging the port city of Mariupol east of Kherson, an attempt Mayor Vadym Boichenko said was aimed at isolating Ukraine.

“They are trying to create a blockade here,” Boichenko said Thursday in a broadcast video. He said the Russians were attacking rail stations to prevent civilian evacuations and that the attacks had cut off water and power.

Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov cited expectations ahead of the invasion that Russia would quickly overtake Ukraine, writing on Facebook, “No one, neither in Russia nor in the West, believed that we would last a week.”  He added that while there were challenges ahead, Ukraine had “every reason to be confident.”


Little hope for peace talks

The two sides held a second round of peace talks in Belarus on Thursday and agreed to set up humanitarian corridors with cease-fire zones so that civilians could safely flee the combat. Ukraine had pushed for a general cease-fire.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — who is also under direct U.S. sanctions — told reporters Thursday that Russian forces would continue their effort to destroy Ukraine’s military infrastructure and would not allow its neighbor to represent a military threat to Russia.

In a 90-minute telephone conversation Thursday with Emmanuel Macron, Putin told the French president that Russia would achieve its goals, including the demilitarization and neutrality of Ukraine, by any means necessary, the Kremlin said in a statement.

Macron told his Russian counterpart the war he started against Ukraine was a “major mistake,” according to a French official. Macron told Putin that if he thought his goals were realistic, “you are lying to yourself,” the official said, adding that the Russian president “wanted to seize control of the whole of Ukraine.”

Poland has taken in one-half of the more than 1 million refugees who have fled Ukraine in the past week, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The U.N. body has said it expects 4 million people could leave Ukraine because of the conflict.

Ukraine’s emergency agency said Wednesday that Russia’s attacks had killed more than 2,000 people across the country.

Russia’s Defense Ministry put out its first casualties report, saying 498 of its troops had been killed in Ukraine, while more than 1,500 others had been wounded.


Russians still outside Kyiv

A senior U.S. defense official said Thursday that the Russian forces in northern Ukraine and outside Kyiv remained “largely stalled” despite U.S. assessments that 90% of the combat power that Russia prepared for the invasion had entered Ukraine.

The official said the cities in northern and eastern Ukraine, including Kyiv, Chernihiv and Kharkiv, had been subjected Thursday to “heavy bombardment” but that Russian forces in the north were still facing stiff resistance from Ukrainians.

“We continue to see them resist and fight and defend their territory and their resources quite effectively,” said the official, who added that Russia had launched more than 480 missiles since the invasion began.

Putin offered a more optimistic assessment Thursday, telling members of his security council on a video call that Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine was progressing “according to plan.” He added, “All tasks are being successfully carried out.”

Putin mentioned the safe passageways for Ukrainian civilians to leave areas of combat and, without providing evidence, accused Ukrainian nationalist groups of preventing civilians from fleeing and using them as human shields.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon also announced Thursday that it was postponing a nuclear missile test launch scheduled for this week. The decision came days after Putin’s decision to put his nuclear forces on higher alert. 

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made the decision to delay the test of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile. He added that the United States would like to see Moscow reciprocate by “taking the temperature down” in the crisis over Ukraine.       

VOA State Department Bureau Chief Nike Ching, National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin, Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb, Istanbul Foreign Correspondent Heather Murdock and White House Correspondent Anita Powell contributed to this report.  Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

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