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Biden announces U.S. will close its skies to Russian aircraft

President Joe Biden announced Tuesday during his State of the Union address that the U.S. would close its skies to Russian aircraft while promising more pain to Russia and its cadre of oligarchs as punishment for its invasion of Ukraine.

The president opened his remarks with a focus on Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and the efforts undertaken by the U.S. and allies to penalize Russian President President Vladimir Putin — and other members of the country’s elitefor the ongoing assault.

“Tonight I am announcing that we will join our allies in closing off American airspace to all Russian flights — further isolating Russia — and adding an additional squeeze on their economy,” Biden said.

Seconds earlier, Biden had announced that his Justice Department was assembling a dedicated task force “to go after the crimes of Russian oligarchs.”

“Tonight I say to the Russian oligarchs and corrupt leaders who have bilked billions of dollars off this violent regime: no more,” Biden said, to thunderous applause and yells.

“We are joining with our European allies to find and seize their yachts, their luxury apartments, their private jets,” Biden said.

“We’re coming for your ill-begotten gains,” he added.

The move to close U.S. airspace to Russian aircraft followed moves by the European Union earlier this week.

On Sunday, the E.U. banned all travel from Russian planes over its airspace in response to Putin’s unprovoked invasion of its neighbor. That ban applied to “any plane owned, chartered or otherwise controlled by a Russian legal or natural person” and included any aircraft privately owned by a Russian oligarch, officials said.

Getty Images; NBC News

Individual European countries had previously prohibited various Russian aircraft from their airspace. Canada has also shut its airspace to Russian aircraft.

Biden’s announcement for the U.S. to do the same came during a speech in which he slammed Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as “wrong” and highlighted the response that the U.S. and its allies have undertaken against it.

“Throughout our history we’ve learned this lesson — when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos. They keep moving. And, the costs and threats to America and the world keep rising,” Biden said. 

As Biden spoke, lawmakers were waving or wearing small Ukrainian flags. Many wore clothing bearing the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag.

In a sign of support for the Ukrainian people, first lady Jill Biden wore an embroidered appliqué of a sunflower, the national flower of Ukraine, sewn into the sleeve of her dress near her wrist.

In his prime-time remarks, Biden also highlighted the unity between the U.S. and its NATO allies and other partners in the response to Russia’s “premeditated and unprovoked” invasion, saying Putin underestimated the strength of the NATO alliance.

“That’s why the NATO alliance was created to secure peace and stability in Europe after World War II. The United States is a member along with 29 other nations,” Biden said. “It matters. American diplomacy matters.”

“He [Putin] thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. And, he thought he could divide us here at home,” Biden said. “Putin was wrong. We were ready.”

“He thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead he met a wall of strength he never imagined,” Biden said.

Biden’s speech came after another day of fighting in Ukraine, where an intensifying Russian assault pounded the heart of Ukraine’s second-largest city, fueling fears that civilians would bear the brunt of the attack.

As part of the White House’s focus on the conflict in Ukraine during Biden’s speech, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, attended the address as a guest of first lady Jill Biden, seated in her viewing box.

In a conversation with news anchors at the White House prior to the address, Biden characterized his focus on Ukraine during the address as centered on “the unity of NATO and the West.”

Biden said his remarks will focus on a “determination to see to it that the E.U., NATO, all of our allies are on the same exact page, in terms of sanctions against Russia and how we deal with the invasion.”

“That’s the one thing that gives us power to impose severe consequences on Putin for what he’s done and one of the few things that I’m confident he’s going to have think twice about, long term, as this continues to bite,” Biden said.

The Biden administration last week joined the European Union in directly sanctioning Putin, adding to a growing list of economic measures those nations have taken to crack down on Russia.

Biden previously restricted the export of some products from the U.S. to Russia, blocking Moscow’s ability to acquire semiconductor chips and other technology essential to defense, aerospace and other critical sectors, and announced sanctions targeting Russian banks and elites with close ties to Putin, freezing every asset Russia has in the U.S.

Earlier last week, Biden sanctioned large Russian financial institutions and elites and worked with allies to halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

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