US imposes sanctions on Ukrainians accused of spreading Russian disinformation

Four officials worked with Russia to undermine Ukrainian officials, US Treasury says

The US Treasury Department building in Washington. AFP

The US on Thursday imposed sanctions on four current and former Ukrainian officials it accuses of working with Russia's intelligence service to destabilise Ukraine as Washington said it was prepared to take further action if Moscow invaded its neighbour.

Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops on its border with Ukraine in what western states fear is the precursor to a new assault on the former Soviet republic. Moscow denies it is planning an attack, but says it could take unspecified military action if a list of demands is not met.

“We're not waiting to counter Russia with these actions, we're taking steps now to do so. This demonstrates that we stand with the Ukrainian government in seeking to identify, expose and to undercut Russia's destabilisation efforts inside Ukraine,” a senior US administration official told reporters.

The US took action against two members of the Ukrainian Parliament, Taras Kozak and Oleh Voloshyn, as well as former officials Volodymyr Oliynyk and Vladimir Sivkovich, the Treasury Department said in a statement.

The statement said the four people have acted at the direction of Russia's FSB security service and have played roles in Russia's campaign to destabilise sovereign countries.

Mr Kozak controls news channels in Ukraine and supported plans to denigrate members of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's inner circle and falsely accused him of mismanagement, the Treasury said.

It accused Mr Voloshyn of working with Russia to undermine Ukrainian officials.

Mr Kozak and Mr Voloshyn are members of the political party of Viktor Medvedchuk, the Kremlin's most prominent ally in Ukraine who was put under house arrest last year in a treason case.

The party, called the Opposition Platform — For Life, slammed the sanctions as evidence of Washington's “dictatorial approach” in Ukraine, “inciting militaristic hysteria and bold Russophobia".

Mr Oliynyk, who fled Ukraine to Russia, worked with the FSB to gather information about Ukrainian critical infrastructure, while Mr Sivkovich, who is a former National Security and Defence Council official, attempted to build support for Ukraine to officially cede Crimea to Russia, the Treasury said.

Thursday's action was the latest by Washington against Russian disinformation and interference, a second senior US administration official said.

“They come in addition to a range of sanctions we are prepared to take with allies and partners to impose severe costs on Russia and its economy if it were to further invade Ukraine in the future,” the official said.

Russia wrested the Crimea region from Ukraine while sending troops there in 2014 and it has supported pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine who have been fighting the government in Kiev since 2014.

Asked if the US was planning to target Russia's participation in the SWIFT financial system in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, one official said: “We have not taken any options off the table.”

Western countries on Thursday said they would be unified in responding strongly to any Russian assault on Ukraine, shifting into damage control after US President Joe Biden suggested there were divisions about how to react to a “minor incursion".

Updated: January 20, 2022, 9:03 PM