- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Obama administration hopes Russia will agree to sit down for direct talks with the transitional government that took power in Ukraine following last month’s ouster of the nation’s Moscow-backed president, a senior State Department official said Thursday.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eric Rubin told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs such talks could create the so-called “off-ramp” for Russia to dial down tensions since Russian forces took control of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula last week.

“Despite Russian obstinacy and deception,” Mr. Rubin said, “our focus remains on de-escalation of tensions.” 

But his remarks came as both Washington and Moscow appeared to be digging their heels Thursday.

About an hour before Mr. Rubin appeared on Capitol Hill, President Obama signed an executive order paving the way for biting sanctions against any “individuals and entities” deemed by the administration to be threatening peace and security in Ukraine.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said the move was an explicit response to “Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

While recent days have seen Russian officials dismiss such characterizations, the Associated Press reported Thursday that a prominent member of Russian parliament had introduced a bill to streamline procedures for Crimea to become part of Russia.

The move appeared to dovetail with Russian-backed developments inside Crimea. The peninsula’s regional parliament, which has long enjoyed a degree of autonomy from Kiev, voted 78-0 on Thursday to hold a referendum later this month to determine whether to break away and join Russia.

News of the vote threatened to overshadow Thursday’s House hearing, where lawmakers on both sides of the aisle slammed Russian President Vladimir Putin for allowing the Russian military to meddle in Ukraine.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat and the committee’s ranking member, said Mr. Putin has reacted in a “very disturbing manner” to the popular uprising that drove Ukrainian President Victor Yanokovych from power last month.

“Let me be clear,” said Mr. Engel, whose own family roots stem back to Ukraine, “President Putin’s aggressive military actions in Crimea flagrantly violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. They violate international law, and they violate Russia’s commitments to Ukraine. They are deeply destabilizing and have serious implications for security in Europe.”

“This is a critical moment,” Mr. Engel added. “The U.S., our European allies, and the international community must stand up for Ukraine’s unity and territorial integrity.”