Russia Bans Top Biden Officials as Tensions Soar

Russia on Friday banned top officials from US President Joe Biden's administration from entering the country and announced a wave of tit-for-tat sanctions and expulsions of diplomats, as tensions soar between the rivals. 

The Russian action comes a day after Washington announced sanctions against Moscow and the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats, in retaliation for what it says was interference by the Kremlin in US elections, a massive cyber attack and other hostile activity.

Moscow in a forceful response said top US officials including Attorney General Merrick Garland, Biden's chief domestic policy advisor Susan Rice, and FBI chief Christopher Wray would be banned from entering Russia. 

Lists of officials banned from entry are usually kept secret, but Russia's foreign ministry said it was revealing the names due to the "unprecedented nature" of the current tensions with Washington. 

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that Russia was responding to US sanctions in "a tit-for-tat manner" by asking 10 US diplomats in Russia to leave the country while also expelling five Polish diplomats in response to a similar move by Warsaw.

Lavrov also said that Putin's top foreign policy aide, Yury Ushakov, had recommended that US envoy John Sullivan leave for Washington to conduct "serious consultations".

Sullivan said he had only seen a message on the Russian foreign ministry's website and was consulting with Washington.

"We have not received any official diplomatic correspondence providing details of the Russian government actions against the diplomatic mission of the United States of America in Russia," Sullivan said in a statement.

The State Department later called Russia's retaliation "escalatory and regrettable".

"It is not in our interest to get into an escalatory cycle, but we reserve the right to respond to any Russian retaliation against the United States," a spokesperson said in Washington.

- Openness to summit -

Despite the barrage of expulsions and sanctions, Russia's foreign ministry insisted that it viewed Biden's recent proposal to hold a summit with Putin "positively", adding that it was "currently under consideration". 

Biden's suggestion earlier this week had amounted to a peace offering at a time when tensions between Russia and the West have escalated over the conflict in Ukraine.

The US penalties announced Thursday widened restrictions on US banks trading in Russian government debt and sanctioned 32 individuals accused of meddling in the 2020 US presidential vote.

Biden had described the new US sanctions as a "measured and proportionate" response to Moscow's hostile actions.

In March, Russia recalled its ambassador to the United States back to Moscow for consultations on the future of US-Russia ties.

The rare move came after Biden said Putin would "pay a price" for alleged election-meddling and agreed with the assessment that Putin is a "killer".

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday said Putin had long talked about the importance of normalising relations between Moscow and Washington. 

"It is indeed good that the points of view of the two heads of state coincide on this," he said.

But Peskov also blasted the new round of penalties imposed by Washington, saying America's "addiction to sanctions remains unacceptable".

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto on Friday offered his country as a venue for a possible Biden-Putin meeting.

In recent weeks, Russia's massing of troops on Ukraine's northern and eastern borders, and on the Crimean peninsula it annexed seven years ago, have contributed to the sharp escalation in tensions.

US forces in Europe have raised their alert status in response, while NATO has issued warnings to Moscow.

- NATO concern -

NATO on Friday said reported plans by Moscow to block parts of the Black Sea would be "unjustified" and called on Moscow "to ensure free access to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov, and allow freedom of navigation".

Russian state media reported that Moscow intends to close parts of the Black Sea to foreign military and official ships for six months, triggering concerns in the US and EU.

Sanctions as a tool for punishing Moscow have become routine since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and fighting erupted between Kiev's forces and pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Relations have plunged further in the intervening years, with Washington accusing Moscow of interfering in its presidential elections in 2016 and 2020.

Even before the recent alarm over the Ukraine conflict, tensions had ratcheted up sharply this year as the US slapped sanctions on Russia over the poisoning of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

Ties then hit rock bottom last month after Biden, who promised to take a firmer line on Moscow than his predecessor Donald Trump, agreed with a description of Putin as a "killer".

Source: Agence France Presse

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