- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2014

President Obama aimed stern warnings and temporarily toothless sanctions at Russia on Thursday, calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin to ease the crisis in Ukraine and condemning a proposed referendum in Crimea that would allow the contested region to join Moscow.

Mr. Obama signed an executive order authorizing financial sanctions against individuals and corporations responsible for destabilizing Ukraine, but for the moment it was a list with no names. The president said the move was part of his effort “to impose a cost on Russia and those responsible for the situation in Crimea.”

“If this violation of international law continues, the resolve of the United States, and our allies and the international community will remain firm,” Mr. Obama said in a hastily arranged appearance in the White House press room. “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 later held an hourlong phone conversation with Mr. Putin, spelling out terms for a proposed diplomatic solution to the crisis. Those terms include direct talks between Russia and Ukraine; international monitors in Ukraine; the return of Russian forces to their bases and a move toward free elections in Ukraine in May. The White House didn’t indicate how Mr. Putin responded but said envoys from both sides would keep talking.

The European Union nations announced Thursday that they will suspend bilateral talks with Russia on visa matters and have threatened travel bans, asset freezes and cancellation of the EU-Russia summit. But Russia showed no signs of pulling back its troops in the showdown over the peninsula, where it has a key navy base and where most inhabitants are Russian-speaking.

Acting to strengthen Mr. Obama’s hand, the House passed a bill allowing the U.S. to offer loan guarantees to Ukraine. The president has promised Ukraine $1 billion in aid already.

House and Senate lawmakers say they are trying to craft a broad package of sanctions that can be imposed on Russia.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said all sides are working together but Mr. Obama could take more unilateral steps to weaken Russia’s hand in diplomacy.

“The president should order the secretary of energy to expedite the approval of American natural gas exports. Russia has an energy stranglehold on much of Europe and has been using it to its own advantage,” the Ohio Republican said. “There is growing consensus that ending this de facto export ban would not only keep Putin in check but help our economy as well and help our allies in Europe.”

The U.S. ordered a dozen F-16 fighter jets to Poland and a guided-missile destroyer to the Black Sea in moves that are being billed as “scheduled” deployments despite heightening tensions in the region.

Lawmakers in Crimea voted Thursday in favor of leaving Ukraine for Russia and putting the question to a regional vote in 10 days.

“This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev,” said Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of the Crimean legislature. “We will decide our future ourselves.”

The national parliament of Ukraine, based in Kiev, reacted with outrage at the referendum and accused Mr. Putin of orchestrating it.

Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called the vote in Crimea “an illegitimate decision.”

“Crimea was, is and will be an integral part of Ukraine,” he said.

Mr. Obama said the proposed referendum would “violate the Ukrainian Constitution and violate international law.”

“Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine,” he said.

Although he didn’t mention Mr. Putin by name, Mr. Obama portrayed Moscow’s military intervention in Crimea 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.

Though Mr. Obama’s words were tough, the White House labored to explain the impact of the president’s proposed sanctions, which amounted to a framework on paper for future action. White House press secretary Jay Carney said the order “creates the authority to identify individuals.”

“That has not happened as of yet,” Mr. Carney said. “There is no list of individuals.”

A reporter raised Mr. Carney’s ire by noting that the only real steps the president has taken against Russia, such as suspending trade talks and issuing some visa restrictions, occurred days before the potential sanctions were announced.

“So that’s already old hat?” Mr. Carney snapped. “It probably doesn’t feel that way to Russia.”

Pressed by reporters whether the administration intends to impose sanctions against Mr. Putin, Mr. Carney said he wasn’t ruling anyone in or out. He said the sanction order was meant to be flexible.

“It’s sort of like an accordion,” Mr. Carney said. “The number of individuals and entities that can be named, as well as the kind and level of sanctions that can be imposed, are very broad.”

The president urged Russia to seize the diplomatic solution 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 governments of Russia and Ukraine should begin with the participation of the international community.

Mr. Putin has said the interim government in Kiev is illegitimate. It was formed after Ukraine’s 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.”

The State Department is imposing visa restrictions on “those responsible for or complicit in threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” the White House said.

Administration officials laid out four criteria for determining who may be 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.

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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