Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is calling for Russia to be cut out of the SWIFT system for international banking payments, amid mounting pressure on the West and its allies to take stronger measures over President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Mr. Trudeau, U.S. President Joe Biden and the European Union all imposed sanctions directly on Mr. Putin and his Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, on Friday, freezing any assets they own in those three jurisdictions.
The Prime Minister went a step further and openly pushed for a ban on Russian banks using SWIFT, the service that allows for cross-border financial transactions, including paying for traded goods. It is particularly crucial for Russia to collect the fossil fuel royalty payments that fund its government.
“We have made it clear that all options are on the table when it comes to imposing steep costs on Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked invasion,” Mr. Trudeau said at an afternoon news conference in Ottawa. “Excluding Russian banks from SWIFT would make it even more difficult for President Putin to finance his brutalities.”
Mr. Trudeau’s call now makes him the most vocal proponent of the measure among Group of Seven leaders. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also favoured ejecting Russia from SWIFT.
The EU, led by Germany, has been most opposed. The EU trades significantly with Moscow, including importing Russian oil, gas and wheat, and making payments through SWIFT.
The U.S. sounded cool to the idea Friday. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said a SWIFT ban was still “an option on the table” and “there will be ongoing discussions about that.” But she played down its significance.
“Many would argue that there are ways that the Russian leadership can get around that over the course of time,” Ms. Psaki said at the daily White House news briefing.
Without SWIFT, Russian banks would incur significant costs in time and money doing international transactions directly or using a smaller, alternative system, such as one set up by China.
The sanctions on Mr. Putin and his Foreign Minister are largely symbolic: it is unlikely Mr. Putin has many assets in his name in the West, and he is notorious for having other people hold his vast fortune for him.
But their absence from previous sanctions announcements, even as a long list of other Russian politicians and oligarchs faced measures, was glaring. Mr. Biden decided to move forward with the sanctions after speaking to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Ms. Psaki said. EU leaders agreed to similar measures after a marathon meeting in Brussels that lasted late into the night.
The American sanctions on Mr. Putin and Mr. Lavrov, which also apply to members of Mr. Putin’s security council, will include a travel ban as well. They put Mr. Putin in the company of dictators Kim Jong-un, Bashar al-Assad and Alexander Lukashenko as pariah heads of state sanctioned by the U.S. Canada’s sanctions will also include Mr. Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov.
“These men bear the greatest responsibility for the death and destruction occurring in Ukraine,” said Mr. Trudeau, who described the war as “barbaric” and a “brutal, needless attack on a sovereign democratic country.”
Canada will also levy additional sanctions on 57 Belarusian elites for allowing Russia to invade from the country that borders Ukraine.
Western countries have been rolling out sanctions on Russia banks, oligarchs and technology exports this week. But they have so far shied away from imposing the most serious measures. In addition to a SWIFT ban, these would include banning Russian oil and gas exports and curbing business investments in Russia.
The Ukrainian government, along with legislators on both sides of the Atlantic, is calling for Ukraine’s allies to make good on preinvasion promises of unprecedented economic pain for Russia if it attacked.
Besieged by Russian forces in Kyiv on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky provided a list of tougher sanctions he asked the U.S., Europe and other allies to push forward on: excluding Russia from SWIFT, imposing an oil embargo, revoking travel visas for Russians and recalling ambassadors.
In a video message, Mr. Zelensky chided “the indecision of politicians” and said the allies “must act without delay.”
“This is not just Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, this is the beginning of the war against Europe. Against the unity of Europe. Against the elementary human rights of Europe. Against all co-existence rules on the continent,” the President said. “But we do not see in full what you are going to do. How are you going to protect yourself when you help us so slowly in Ukraine?”
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted that his Italian counterpart, Luigi di Maio, had promised in a phone call to support barring Russia from SWIFT. This would be something of a reversal, as Italy had previously been seen as one of the countries most opposed to the move.
Donald Tusk, the leader of the largest conservative party in the European Parliament and a former president of the European Council, laced into countries that had watered down the sanctions package.
“In this war everything is real: Putin’s madness and cruelty, Ukrainian victims, bombs falling on Kyiv. Only your sanctions are pretended,” he wrote on Twitter. “Those EU governments which blocked tough decisions (ie. Germany, Hungary, Italy) have disgraced themselves.”
In the U.S., Bob Menendez, the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pushed Mr. Biden to do more. He said in a statement that the U.S. and its allies should sanction the Russian central bank, major industries and exclude the country from SWIFT.
The Canadian government, meanwhile, said it would match every donation made by individual Canadians to the Red Cross until March 18, up to a maximum of $10-million. This follows $50-million in previous Canadian humanitarian aid and $620-million in loans to Ukraine.
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser told reporters his department has been working full out since January 19 to help process immigration applications and extend visa and work permits for Ukrainians currently in Canada. The government has beefed up resources in its offices in Warsaw, Vienna and Bucharest and preparing for an influx of digital applications.
“We have taken nothing off the table and we are looking for additional solutions . . . for the people of Ukraine,” he said.