“We should keep our distance from those people who compromise us,” he said, a jocular reference to the officials on the sanctions list, some of whom attended the meeting.
Putin added sardonically that he would open an account to keep his salary in the targeted Bank Rossiya, a private bank that is owned by Yuri Kovalchuk, considered to be Putin’s longtime friend and banker. With about $10 billion in assets, Rossiya ranks as the 17th-largest bank in Russia and maintains numerous ties to banks in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
At the same time, Putin said he sees no immediate need for further Russian retaliation to the U.S. sanction.
“We must refrain from retaliatory steps for now,” Putin said.
He said Russia will keep funding a program to service Afghan helicopters and train their crews that has been conducted jointly with NATO.
Russia is expected to play a major role in the planned withdrawal of U.S. and other NATO forces from Afghanistan later this year by providing transit corridors via its territory, and Putin seemed to indicate that the Kremlin at this stage has no intentions of shutting the route.
But a few hours later, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow will “respond harshly” to the second round of U.S. sanctions and Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, also said that Russia would retaliate.
“We will react every time. We responded to the first round of sanctions, and we will respond to those too,” he said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
The contradictory messages were highly unusual, and seemed to convey a Kremlin warning to the West to make a deal or face Russia’s retaliation.
Moscow also appeared to be warming to the deployment of monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the top trans-Atlantic security and rights group.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia would welcome sending the OSCE observers to Russian-speaking regions in eastern Ukraine on condition that their number and locations are clearly set, but he made it clear that they wouldn’t be let into Crimea.
In Crimea, heavily armed Russian forces and pro-Russia militia have blocked Ukrainian military at their bases for weeks. Following Sunday’s referendum they have moved aggressively to flush the Ukrainians out, storming some ships and military facilities.
The Ukrainian government said it was drawing up plans to evacuate its outnumbered troops from Crimea. But at the Ukrainian military air base in Belbek, outside Sevastopol, Col. Yuly Mamchur told reporters Friday he was still waiting for orders from his commanders on whether to vacate.
Amid its political crisis, Ukraine is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, struggling to pay off billions of dollars in debts in the coming months. The U.S. and the European Union have pledged to quickly offer a bailout.