- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2014

Escalating a tense standoff with Moscow, President Obama announced a new round of sanctions Thursday against 20 top Russians for their role in the takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea region and threatened further economic punishment if Russian President Vladimir Putin invades other regions of Ukraine.

In a statement on the South Lawn of the White House, Mr. Obama said the U.S. is expanding sanctions to include wealthy oligarchs in Mr. Putin’s inner circle, more senior government officials and a Russian bank that provides “material support” to the Russian leadership. The move freezes any assets they have in the U.S. and bars them from traveling to America.

Russia must know that further escalation will only isolate it further from the international community,” Mr. Obama said.

The sanctions aren’t expected to have much impact, but were signs of the worsening relationship between the U.S. and Russia as the crisis has deepened into the most serious dispute since the end of the Cold War. Mr. Obama blasted Russia’s annexation of Crimea as “illegitimate,” but Mr. Putin has simply proceeded with his plans.

Hours after Mr. Obama spoke, Russia’s lower parliament ratified a treaty to make Crimea a part of the Russian Federation. Crimea, which has an ethnic Russian majority, voted overwhelmingly in a disputed referendum on Sunday to join Russia.

Mr. Obama also signed an executive order Thursday allowing the U.S. to sanction certain sectors of Russian industry, although he said such a move was “not our preferred outcome” because it could also harm the global economy. The president said the U.S. is working with European partners on those possible wider sanctions to deter Russia from invading other regions of Ukraine.

“The world is watching with grave concern as Russia has positioned its military in a way that could lead to further incursions into southern and eastern Ukraine,” Mr. Obama said.

The White House also dismissed criticism that its sanctions regime is having little impact on Russia’s actions. Administration officials said the sanctions will have a crippling effect on those targeted. They also promised that further action is coming.

“We will continue to impose additional costs,” a senior administration official told reporters just after Mr. Obama spoke. “Nobody should believe this is the end of what we’re prepared to do under the executive order the president signed earlier in the week. This is only the beginning.”

The move comes after Russian forces solidified their hold on the disputed region Wednesday, taking over the Ukrainian naval headquarters in Crimea. Ukrainian officials in the capital of Kiev said they would seek to withdraw troops from the peninsula, effectively surrendering the territory to Russia.

On Monday, Mr. Obama sanctioned 11 Russian and Ukrainian officials for their role in the crisis. Mr. Putin responded by signing a treaty with leaders of Crimea to annex the territory to the Russian Federation, and many of the Russian officials on the list mocked the president’s action as ineffectual.

Mr. Obama has ruled out the use of military force in the conflict, saying such a clash over Ukraine would not be appropriate.

The president also urged Congress to approve a package of economic assistance for Ukraine “right away.”

“Expressions of support are not enough. We need action,” he said.

The administration’s moves also have spurred retaliation by Moscow. As Mr. Obama spoke, Russia imposed an entry ban on American lawmakers and others officials, the Associated Press said.

Mr. Putin responded by issuing his own sanctions against nine U.S. officials: Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (misspelled by the Russians as “Reed”), Nevada Democrat; Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat; Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican; Sen. Mary Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat; Sen. Dan Coats, Indiana Republican; and White House advisers Dan Pfeiffer, Ben Rhodes and Caroline Atkinson.

Many of the Americans named took the designation as a badge of honor. An aide to Mr. Boehner said the speaker is “proud to be included on a list of those willing to stand against Putin’s aggression.”

On Wednesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov threatened to stop cooperating with the U.S. and its allies in diplomatic talks with Iran, aimed at halting Tehran’s nuclear weapons program.

Thus far, Russia has been a crucial member of the so-called “P5 plus 1,” which includes the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

But Russian officials said their involvement in the talks may change in light of U.S. sanctions.

“We wouldn’t like to use these talks [with Iran] as an element of the game of raising the stakes, taking into account the sentiments in some European capitals, Brussels and Washington,” Mr. Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Russia’s Interfax news agency. “But if they force us into that, we will take retaliatory measures here as well.”

The White House brushed off that threat.

Russia has no interest in nuclear proliferation or an escalation of the situation in the Persian Gulf,” a senior administration official said. “They’re invested in diplomacy with Iran because it is in their own interest. It’s not a favor to us.”

The new U.S. sanctions targeted Russia’s Bank Rossiya, with $10 billion in assets. The Treasury Department said it is the personal bank for senior officials of the Russian government, including Mr. Putin’s inner circle.