WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Thursday denounced plans for a March 16 referendum on the future of Crimea and announced that it had authorized sanctions against officials whom the United States holds responsible for the tension that is building into a Cold War-style showdown.
The announcement of the referendum came after the Crimean Parliament voted to leave Ukraine and join Russia, a step that immediately triggered talk of military action in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, whose troops so far have made no move to resist the Russian presence in Crimea.
U.S. officials were adamant that the sanctions measures — a visa ban that has already taken effect and an executive order that will allow for even harsher penalties — were in the works before the referendum announcement. However, it’s clear that the United States and its European allies view the pro-Russian Crimean Parliament’s decision to stage a vote on annexation as yet another move away from the “off ramp” that U.S. officials have urged Moscow to take.
President Barack Obama spoke for an hour with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the White House said, during which he told the Russian leader of U.S. actions and urged him to open negotiations directly with the interim government in Kiev, which has governed Ukraine since the ouster of elected President Viktor Yanukovych last month during a deadly political crisis.
Speaking from the White House briefing room, Obama separately said that the vote on whether Russia should annex Crimea violates Ukraine’s constitution and international law. Obama said any discussions about Ukraine’s borders must include the leadership in Kiev, which is made up primarily of pro-Western technocrats, politicians and activists.
“In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders,” Obama said.
Even European states that were reluctant to join the Americans in swift punitive measures against Russia, a key trade partner and their largest supplier of natural gas, were spurred to action Thursday. The European Council announced a suspension of talks with Russia on visa matters and a broad economic deal. It also warned that unless Russia and Ukraine begin direct talks within the next few days, the council would “decide on additional measures such as travel bans, asset freezes and the cancellation of the EU-Russia summit.”
The U.S. steps went slightly further, with the travel bans against unnamed Ukrainian and Russian officials and an executive order that Obama said authorizes sanctions on “individuals and entities responsible for violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, or for stealing the assets of the Ukrainian people.”
Senior U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity so as to freely discuss sensitive diplomacy, told journalists via conference call that, as of Thursday morning, no individual or entity had been slapped with sanctions. Still, as one official put it, the move should be “leading people in Russia, people in Crimea, to be asking whether or not they’re going to see their name in a designation.”
“We’re not going to accept a status quo in which Russia can violate the sovereignty of its neighbors with some type of impunity,” another U.S. official said.
At the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki explained that the travel ban and executive order are two separate measures — the travel ban is in effect but a law bars the disclosure of the names of those targeted, so there’s no word on whether Putin is included.
The executive order is a “powerful tool” that will give the authority to impose sanctions against people or entities. If and when that order is used, U.S. officials said, the names of those targeted will be made public.
“Now the next step is, of course, to have an interagency discussion about that in terms of implementation and what individuals and entities will be targeted,” Psaki said. “So that is a separate piece that has not been implemented yet. Implementation is the next step.”
But analysts who are closely monitoring the crisis say that even fully implementing sanctions isn’t likely to persuade Putin to reverse course by returning his forces to their garrisons and opening direct talks with Ukrainian leaders.
The best the United States can do to counter the stubborn Putin, analysts say, is to deepen Russia’s political isolation, bolster Ukraine’s nervous neighbors and kick the diplomacy into overdrive.
Secretary of State John Kerry spent 40 minutes with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, on the sidelines of a meeting in Rome, stressing that the next step should be direct Russian-Ukrainian talks. In Washington, Kerry’s No. 2, Deputy Secretary William Burns, said the U.S. should “steadily and methodically” approach the crisis. He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee bluntly: “We do not seek confrontation with Russia.”
Those kinds of statements, analysts say, are signs that the Obama administration understands that Washington and Moscow have fundamentally different visions on the future of Ukraine. Where the United States sees Ukraine as a fledgling democratic state that needs help shaking off the old Soviet yoke, Moscow isn’t prepared to accept a Ukraine that breaks from history and isn’t aligned with Russia. That’s of particular concern in Crimea, where the majority of the population is ethnic Russian.
Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research institute, said that “it’s not realistic” that the United States or its partners will force Putin from Crimea in the near term, if ever. Kuchins said it was smart for the administration to announce an initial round of sanctions that leave wiggle room for more severe measures should Putin show signs of expanding his campaign beyond Crimea.
“I don’t think he’s going to be swayed in any near term on Crimea,” Kuchins said, “so we need to make sure he gets the message that moving out of Crimea with a military intervention is a bridge too far.”