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President Biden speaks in White House East Room about Ukraine after Russian troops entered separatist regions

Washington (AFP) - President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced sanctions against Russian banks and the country's wealthy elite after what he said was Moscow's launching of an invasion against Ukraine.

"This is the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine," Biden said in a televised speech at the White House.

Biden stressed that the measures were only a "first tranche" in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin "carving out a big chunk of Ukraine."

Biden said that more sanctions will follow if Putin extends Russia's military grip beyond two territories in the eastern Donbas region that are already under control of Russian-backed separatists.

Putin announced Monday that he has recognized the independence of both areas and said the Russian military would mount a so-called "peacekeeping" mission in the territories.

"He's setting up a rationale to go much further," Biden said.

The first round of sanctions targeted Russia's sovereign debt, cutting "off Russia's government from Western financing," Biden said. Also targeted are two banks and specific members of the Russian "elites," he added.

Biden said the United States will continue to send "defensive" weapons to Ukraine's military but underscored there was "still time" for diplomacy and "to avert the worst case scenario."

Biden's tough approach followed an initially more hesitant US response to Putin's recognition of the two rebel-held enclaves in Ukraine on Monday.

For weeks, the United States and its allies have said that a full invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces massing on its ex-Soviet neighbor's borders would trigger devastating economic sanctions.

But with doubts continuing over Putin's ultimate intentions after a speech he delivered Monday, it took hours for the Biden administration to shift to a harsher tone.

Biden announced limited sanctions against the two separatist enclaves, which already have next to no dealings with the United States. And in the first public comments from the administration after Putin's geopolitical bombshell, a US official said merely that "we are going to assess what Russia's done."

The official stressed that Russian forces have already been deployed covertly in the separatist areas of Donbas for eight years. "Russian troops moving into Donbas would not be a new step," the official said.

Only later that evening did the White House signal it was moving toward a tougher response.

Beyond Nord Stream 2

Putin's move has sparked intense phone diplomacy between Washington, European capitals, and Ukraine, as the United States tries to maintain unity among dozens of partners over how to respond to Russia, which supplies much of the European Union's energy needs.

Earlier Tuesday, the White House welcomed Germany's decision to halt the mammoth Nord Stream 2 pipeline project meant to deliver Russian natural gas to Europe. The pipeline was vital to Russia's commercial and geo-strategic goals.

Biden "made clear that if Russia invaded Ukraine, we would act with Germany to ensure Nord Stream 2 does not move forward... We will be following up with our own measures today," Press Secretary Jen Psaki tweeted.

After announcing he was stopping the near-completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned Russia that "there are also other sanctions that we can introduce if further measures are taken."

On Friday, the deputy US national security advisor for international economics, Daleep Singh, warned that the full set of sanctions under preparation would turn Russia into an international "pariah."

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