WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. issued new sanctions Friday on a slew of Ukraine separatists, including self-proclaimed rebel mayors, governors and commanders in chief of cities under siege, for refusing to cede to the central government in Kiev. The economic penalties served as a warning from Washington as Russian troops return to its border with Ukraine in what a senior U.S. official described as a new attempt to escalate the already tense environment.
The senior U.S. official said the West is still prepared to slap tougher sanctions on Russia's economic sectors to punish it for stoking unrest in Ukraine since a new government pushed out the country's pro-Moscow president in February. U.S. and European officials will discuss the possibility of additional sanctions at series of meetings next week.
So far, the U.S. has imposed sanctions against 71 individuals and entities, including in Russia, for their actions to destabilize Ukraine.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest called reports of a new Russian military buildup near the Ukraine border "troubling."
"We will not accept any use of Russian military forces, under any pretext, in eastern Ukraine," Earnest said.
The penalties issued Friday freeze any assets that the seven separatists have in the United States, and prohibit any American firms or businesses from dealing with them. It is a relatively limited slap against the separatists themselves but showed that the U.S. is ready to move forward with more if tensions ratchet back up.
In a statement, the Treasury Department said the sanctions penalize separatist leaders, including Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, who dubbed himself the "people's mayor" of the eastern Ukraine city of Slovyansk after leading a group who overtook the local government there in early April; his colleague Igor Girkin, the self-described "commander in chief of the Donetsk People's Republic" in the same town; and Valery Kaurov, who calls himself the "president of Novorossiya." Officials said Kaurov has asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to deploy troops to Novorossiya, which translates to New Russia and is a pro-Russian term for a region in southeast Ukraine.
Last month, in an apparent attempt to ease tensions in Ukraine, Putin pulled back many of his estimated 40,000 Russian troops massed along the border. They appear to have returned over the last week — even as Putin and newly elected Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko discuss Poroshenko's plan for a unilateral cease-fire and as Putin says he is resisting rebels' calls for help.
The U.S. official described a buildup of Russian tanks, heavy artillery, fuel trucks and support vehicles that appear headed to the Ukraine border. The official said the Ukraine separatists have been aided by Russian special forces, rocket launchers and tanks.
The official was not authorized to be named in briefing reporters and spoke on condition of anonymity.
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