CEOs of biggest Russian firms could be hit by sanctions
(Reuters) - The CEOs of Russia's two largest firms are on a list of those who may be hit next week with European and U.S. sanctions over the Crimea crisis, a German newspaper said on Friday, suggesting tougher than expected measures against Russia's elite.
Moscow shipped more troops and armor into Crimea on Friday and repeated its threat to invade other parts of Ukraine, showing no sign of heeding Western pleas to back off from the worst East-West confrontation since the Cold War.
Russia's stock markets tumbled and the cost of insuring its debt soared on the last day of trading before pro-Moscow authorities in Crimea hold a vote to join Russia, a move all but certain to lead to U.S. and European Union sanctions on Monday.
European officials told Reuters the EU was working on a five page list of 120-130 Russians who could be subjected to asset freezes and travel bans. Officials were still debating whether to hit a large number of Russians when the measures take effect at the start of next week, or target a smaller number initially and expand the list if the crisis continues.
Germany's Bild newspaper reported that Alexei Miller, boss of natural gas monopoly Gazprom, and Igor Sechin, head of Russia's biggest oil firm Rosneft, would be among those targeted, along with senior ministers and Kremlin aides.
Reuters was not immediately able to confirm the Bild report. Rosneft spokesman Mikhail Leontyev said sanctions on his firm's boss would be "stupid, petty and obvious sabotage of themselves most of all. I think it will primarily affect Rosneft's business partners in the West in an extraordinary way." Gazprom and the Kremlin declined to comment.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, responding to the death of at least one protester in Ukraine's eastern city of Donetsk, repeated President Vladimir Putin's declaration of the right to invade to protect Russian citizens and "compatriots".
"Russia is aware of its responsibility for the lives of compatriots and fellow citizens in Ukraine and reserves the right to take people under its protection," it said.
Ukrainian health authorities say one 22-year-old man was stabbed to death and at least 15 others were being treated in hospital after clashes in Donetsk, the mainly Russian-speaking home city of Ukraine's ousted President Viktor Yanukovich.
Organizers of the anti-Moscow demonstration said the dead man was from their group.
Moscow denies that its forces are intervening in Crimea, an assertion Washington ridicules as "Putin's fiction". Journalists have seen Russian forces operating openly in their thousands over the past two weeks, driving in armored columns of vehicles with Russian license plates and identifying themselves to besieged Ukrainian troops as members of Russia's armed forces.
A Reuters reporter watched a Russian warship unload trucks, troops and at least one armored personnel carrier at Kazachaya bay near Sevastopol on Friday morning. Trucks drove off a ramp from the Yamal 156, a large landing ship that can carry more than 300 troops and up to a dozen APCs.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in London in a last-ditch effort to persuade Moscow to call off the referendum in Crimea, now seen as all but inevitable.
FACTS ON THE GROUND
Russian troops seized the Black Sea peninsula two weeks ago as a pro-Moscow regional government took power there. The new regional authorities intend to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a vote described in the West as illegal.
"What we would like to see is a commitment to stop putting new facts on the ground and a commitment to engage seriously on ways to de-escalate the conflict, to bring Russian forces back to barracks, to use international observers in place of force," a U.S. State Department official said ahead of Kerry's talks.
But Russia has shown no sign of veering from Putin's plan to annex Crimea.
Putin declared on March 1 that Russia had the right to invade its neighbor, a week after its ally Yanukovich fled the Ukrainian capital following three months of demonstrations that ended with about 100 people killed in the final days.
In further signs of Moscow's belligerent posture ahead of the Crimea vote, the Defence Ministry announced on Friday it would hold exercises with fighter jets and helicopters over the Mediterranean Sea. On Thursday it announced artillery drills near Ukraine's border.
U.S. and EU sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes on Russian officials and their firms, are now seen as inevitable. The only mystery remaining is who will be on the lists of targets when they are agreed at the start of next week.
U.S. and European officials say the targets will not include Putin or Lavrov, but will include senior figures in the government and members of parliament in an effort to impose hardship on Russia's elite for backing Putin's policies.
Bild's list included Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, presidential administration chief Sergei Ivanov and the secretary of the National Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev.
SHARES FALL, DEBT INSURANCE COSTS RISE
Russia's MICEX stock index was down 2.3 percent at 1330 GMT, having lost more than 16 percent of its value in the two weeks since Putin declared his right to invade. At one point in the morning it had fallen 5 percent to its lowest since 2009.
The cost of insuring Russia's debt against default for five years rose nearly 7 percent and is now up by half since the crisis began.
Although Russian public opinion, fed by overwhelmingly state-controlled media, is still solidly behind the plan to annex Crimea, Western countries believe sanctions could undermine support for Putin among the wealthy elite.
Goldman Sachs lowered its prediction for Russian economic growth for this year to 1 percent from 3 percent on Thursday, blaming the Ukraine crisis for sparking capital flight that will destroy investment.
Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin told Russian media that the threat of Western sanctions was already imposing higher borrowing costs on Russian businesses and that further sanctions would push capital flight to $50 billion a quarter.
Renaissance Capital estimated capital outflow in the first quarter would exceed $55 billion, compared with $63 billion for the whole of 2013.
The ruble has declined only slightly despite the fall in share prices, held aloft by a central bank that raised its lending rates on March 3 and has been spending reserves to keep the currency from falling.
Russia's strong words over the violence in Donetsk again raised the prospect of a wider invasion beyond Crimea, a risk that had seemed to ease after the first few days of the crisis, when Putin called an end to war games involving 150,000 troops.
The party of Estonia's outgoing defence minister said it believed Putin was preparing an invasion of eastern Ukraine.