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Updated December 23rd, 2023 at 09:51 IST

US takes aim at finacial institutions with new Russia sanctions authority

The move comes as US funding for Ukraine military aid is running out and the United States and its allies search for new ways to slow Russia's war effort.

Thomson Reuters
Representative
Representative | Image:Unsplash
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US President Joe Biden on Friday signed an executive order threatening penalties for financial institutions that help Russia circumvent sanctions, the White House said in a statement, as Washington seeks to increase pressure on Moscow.

The order also gives Washington the ability to broaden import bans of certain Russian goods, such as seafood and diamonds, the White House said.

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"We are sending an unmistakable message: Anyone supporting Russia’s unlawful war effort is at risk of losing access to the US financial system," National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement.

The move comes as US funding for Ukraine military aid is running out and the United States and its allies search for new ways to slow Russia's war effort.

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Washington already had the power to sanction non-Russian financial institutions but Friday's executive order underscores the "very real risks for foreign financial institutions, many of whom don't seem to have gotten the message yet," said Edward Fishman, a sanctions expert at Columbia University.

The measures clarify that the US can target financial institutions involved in transactions on behalf of those hit with US sanctions or tied to Russia's military-industrial base, including the sale of certain critical items.

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The order is being issued in coordination with allies, said senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The United States has repeatedly warned companies against skirting US sanctions imposed on Russia and has targeted firms in the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and China that it has accused of helping Moscow avoid the measures.

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Senior US officials have also travelled to Turkey, the UAE and other countries to warn that businesses could lose access to G7 markets if they do business with entities subject to US curbs.

A Treasury official said Washington expressed its concerns to governments around the world, adding that the US is asking for more scrutiny of financial institutions that could be facilitating transactions supporting Russia’s procurement of military-industrial inputs.

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The official said that the new authority was not focused on any specific country and was not intended to suggest that governments are aware of these transactions.

While the order is not aimed at specific countries, those that have been most implicated in evasion and violations of US sanctions are "obvious," Fishman, who worked on Russia sanctions at the State Department during President Barack Obama's administration, said, citing China, Turkey and the UAE as examples.

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Choke point

The new order gives Washington and its allies tools to target the networks Moscow was trying to put in place to circumvent these sanctions through the use of front companies and "witting and unwitting financial intermediaries," one of the senior officials said.

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"We've sanctioned a number of these companies that we've found, but ultimately the choke point for these companies and Russia's ability to continue to try and circumvent our sanctions is the financial system," the official said.

"What this tool allows us to do is to target those institutions and give them a very stark choice."

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The provisions take effect immediately.

The officials said they were not aware of any US or European institutions that were in violation of the order, noting that most US and European firms had already scaled back their business with Russia dramatically.

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Brian O'Toole, a former Treasury Department official now with the Atlantic Council think tank, said the executive order will allow the Biden administration to use secondary sanctions in a more nuanced way.

"These are akin to Iran-style sanctions," he said.

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The executive order will also give Washington the ability to ban products that originated in Russia but were transformed outside of the country, including diamonds and seafood, the White House said.

The action comes after the Group of Seven countries earlier this month announced a direct ban on Russian diamonds starting Jan. 1, followed by phased-in restrictions on indirect imports of Russian gems from around March 1.

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Published December 23rd, 2023 at 09:51 IST

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