President Obama on Thursday renewed his call for Russia to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine by allowing independent monitors and moving toward free elections in May.
In a hastily arranged press conference at the White House, Mr. Obama said he had authorized a framework for sanctions in consultation with allies “to impose a cost on Russia” and on individuals responsible for the Russian military’s occupation of Crimea in southern Ukraine.
“I am confident that we are moving forward together, united in our determination to oppose actions that violate international law and to support the government and people of Ukraine,” Mr. Obama said.
While he didn’t mention Russian President Vladimir Putin by name, Mr. Obama blasted Moscow’s military intervention as a Soviet-style power move.
“In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders,” the president said.
Mr. Obama also criticized a proposed referendum on the future of Crimea, saying it would violate Ukraine’s sovereignty. Most inhabitants of the region are Russian-speaking.
“The proposed referendum on the future of Crimea would violate the Ukrainian constitution and violate international law,” Mr. Obama said. “Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine.”
He urged Russia to seize the diplomatic solution being offered by the U.S. and its Western allies.
“I want to be clear that there is also a way to resolve this crisis that respects the interests of the Russian Federation as well as the Ukrainian people: Let international monitors into all of Ukraine, including Crimea, to ensure the rights of all Ukrainians are being respected, including ethnic Russians,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s the path to de-escalation.”
He said talks between the government of Russia and Ukraine should begin with the participation of the international community.
Mr. Putin has said that the interim government in Kiev is illegitimate, after the country’s former pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled in the face of violent street protests.
Mr. Obama also offered that Russia would be allowed to “maintain its [military] basing rights in Crimea, provided that it abides by its agreements and respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Russia has a key navy base in Crimea, located on the Black Sea.
Mr. Obama authorized sanctions Thursday against unspecified individuals responsible for “undermining” stability in Ukraine.
The White House said Mr. Obama signed an executive order authorizing sanctions against “individuals and entities” responsible for threatening peace, security and “territorial integrity” in Ukraine.
“We intend to impose costs on Russia for this intervention. It also gives us flexibility to respond in the coming days based on Russia’s continued action,” a senior administration told reporters. “We believe there need to be costs and consequences for Russia, for what they’ve already done in Crimea. That is a violation of international law, a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the action is intended as a “flexible tool” to allow the administration to sanction those most directly responsible for destabilizing the country, including Russia’s military intervention in the Crimean peninsula.
Also, the State Department is putting in place visa restrictions on several officials and individuals to deny visas to “those responsible for or complicit in threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” the White House said.
While not naming names, the administration said some visas already have been pulled.
“This does include Russians and Ukrainians,” a senior administration official said.
A top aide to Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said the administration needs to do more to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“We welcome this first step, but remain committed to working with the administration to give President Obama as many tools as needed to put President Putin in check as well as prevent Russia from infringing on the sovereignty of any of its other neighbors,” said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck.
The U.S. and western allies are in diplomatic talks with Russia and the new interim government in Ukraine, seeking a negotiated solution to the crisis that escalated last week with Russia sending troops into the strategically important peninsula on the Black Sea.
The White House said the actions build upon the previous steps the United States has taken, including suspending bilateral discussions with Russia on trade and investment, suspending other bilateral meetings on a case-by-case basis, putting on hold U.S.-Russia military-to-military engagement, and suspending temporarily participation in activities associated with the preparation of the scheduled G-8 Summit in Sochi, Russia, in June.
“Depending on how the situation develops, the United States is prepared to consider additional steps and sanctions as necessary,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
Administration officials laid out four criteria for the potential targets of sanctions: those undermining democratic progress in Ukraine; those threatening the peace and sovereignty of Ukraine; those misappropriating state assets of Ukraine; and those purporting to assert governmental authority over Ukraine.
That framework, officials said, will allow the U.S. to act quickly as the situation unfolds.
“This authority is now in place and we will be looking to use it as appropriate in response to developments on the ground,” a senior official said.