Obama authorizes sanctions, criticizes Crimea secession plot

President Obama on Thursday authorized new sanctions on Russia that will restrict travel and freeze the assets of people the Obama administration identifies as being involved in the invasion of Crimea.

Obama also criticized plans by local officials in Crimea to hold a secession vote to leave Ukraine and join the Russian Federation, which he said would violate the Ukrainian constitution and international law.

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“Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine,” Obama told reporters at the White House. “In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders."

The order for sanctions comes less than a week after Russian forces entered Crimea, a region of Eastern Ukraine that was a part of Russia until 1954.

Obama said the sanctions were punishment for Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s “territorial integrity,” and that those named in the order were guilty of “stealing the assets of the Ukrainian people."

Individuals designated by the administration as having ordered or aided the Russian incursion into Crimea could see their ability to travel to the U.S. restricted. The government could also freeze assets held by those individuals in the country.

The sanctions would prevent U.S. companies from doing business with any entity or individual named by the administration.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said specific individuals and entities had not yet been identified, but that the executive order offered the administration the “flexibility” to impose sanctions when warranted.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) presented a united front with Obama, praising the sanctions and saying Congress would work to give the president more tools to battle Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I support the limited sanctions outlined by the president today to freeze some assets and block U.S. visas,” said Boehner, who at times has criticized Obama on Ukraine. “This is a welcome first step, and we remain committed to working with the administration to give President Obama as many tools as needed to keep President Putin in check and prevent Russia from infringing on the sovereignty of any of its neighbors.”

The House is expected to pass legislation later Thursday giving loan guarantees to Ukraine, and Boehner said work is continuing on a measure to allow the administration to place more sanctions on Russia.

Boehner said Putin is “counting on the United States to sit back and watch him do and take whatever he wants.”

It is unclear how effective the sanctions will be unless European allies join the U.S. in taking action.

In a joint statement Thursday afternoon, the heads of state of the European Council said Russia needed to enter into negotiations "within the next few days" that produced "results within a limited timeframe."

"In the absence of such results the European Union will decide on additional measures, such as travel bans, asset freezes and the cancellation of the EU-Russia summit," the European leaders said.

The White House and State Department took pains to depict the U.S. actions as in concert with Europe. Secretary of State John Kerry said he has "been in very close touch all day" with his European counterparts.

"The United States will continue to stand with the Ukrainian people, as will our allies and friends in the European community and elsewhere, in order to stand up for the values that we all believe define our fellow democracies," Kerry said.

Europe has much closer economic ties to Russia, which is the fourth largest trading partner to Germany. Russian money is also a major feeding source for London’s economic heart, complicating efforts to build sanctions that would hurt Russia without causing pain to European economies.

Trade between the U.S. and Russia, by comparison, is much more limited, and a U.S. official said threats from Russian leaders of retaliatory sanctions do “not concern us or factor into our decision making.”

Obama told British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he would move forward with the sanctions during a pair of phone calls earlier this week. 

The administration has already sought to pressure Russia by suspending bilateral discussions with Russia on trade and investment, putting on hold joint military exercises and suspended planning for an upcoming Group of Eight meeting in Sochi.

The move also builds on travel restrictions announced last month targeting members of the former Ukrainian government responsible for “undermining democratic institutions” within the country.

Boehner and some Republicans have called on Obama to go farther.

He on Thursday once again said the administration should relax what he called “a de facto export ban” on natural gas that he said would weaken Putin’s influence in the region.

“There is growing consensus that ending this defacto export ban would not only keep Putin in check but help our economy as well and help our allies in Europe,” he said.

This story was posted at 7:54 a.m. and updated at 3:43 p.m.