The White House on Sunday was quick to dismiss a referendum that showed overwhelming support in Crimea for seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.
“This referendum is contrary to Ukraine’s constitution, and the international community will not recognize the results of a poll administered under threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention that violates international law,” the White House said in a statement.
“No decisions should be made about the future of Ukraine without the Ukrainian government.”
The vote sets the stage for the United States and European allies to ramp up pressure on Russia.
After diplomatic talks and public criticism have failed to slow Russian military forces from amassing in and around Crimea, U.S. officials and allies are preparing to impose economic sanctions on Russia and several high-ranking officials in Russian government and industry.
“In this century, we are long past the days when the international community will stand quietly by while one country forcibly seizes the territory of another,” said the White House. “We call on all members of the international community to continue to condemn such actions, to take concrete steps to impose costs, and to stand together in support of the Ukrainian people and Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”
During a call on Sunday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Obama stressed that the vote “would never be recognized by the United States and the international community,” according to the White House.
Obama also emphasized that the U.S., in coordination with European allies, is prepared to impose “additional costs on Russia for its actions.”
Before polls closed in Crimea, the European Union similarly condemned the action, calling it an “unprovoked violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.” European leaders said only diplomatic talks, done while keeping in mind Ukraine’s constitution, could be the proper way to resolve the situation. The EU said it planned to discuss “additional measures” Monday.
However, the referendum occurred without any aid or sanctions formally in place, as the Senate was unable to advance a Ukrainian aid bill before leaving town, amid partisan fighting over included reforms to the International Monetary Fund. Those provisions, long sought after by the White House, would shift some IMF funds and authorize reforms the international body agreed to in 2010.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee easily approved an aid package including sanctions and the IMF provisions, but some Republicans, including leading GOP members in the House, criticized the inclusion of the IMF provisions. Some Republicans sought to strike a deal where the IMF reforms could be included, so long as the administration agreed to delay controversial rules regarding tax-exempt groups engaging in political activity.
That standoff left the aid package waiting for a full Senate vote, as lawmakers left town for a week-long recess.
Lawmakers on Sunday, including several who just returned from a visit to Ukraine, struck a realistic tone about what exactly can be done to assist Ukraine. Several emphasized the need to impress upon Putin the error of his ways in order to effect any change.
“It’s going to be difficult. Let’s face it, Russia has always had a design on Crimea,” said Sen. Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeDem senator pushes back against GOP efforts to rescind internet privacy rules Dem super PAC ads pressure GOP senators to back independent Russia probe Week ahead: Net neutrality supporters rally on rule's second anniversary MORE (R-Ariz.) on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “All you can do is increase the costs significantly and hope that they don’t move further into Ukraine.”
With that in mind, several lawmakers are looking to strike a tough tone with Putin, vowing that the sanctions coming would be deeply felt, and last as long as it takes to get Russia to change its ways.
“President Putin has started a game of Russian roulette, and the United States and the West have to be very clear in their response,” said Sen. Robert MenendezRobert MenendezSteve Mnuchin, foreclosure king, now runs your US Treasury Senate Dems move to nix Trump's deportation order Senators to Trump: We support additional Iran sanctions MORE (D-N.J.), the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Putin only understands strength.”
The referendum pushed ongoing tension between Russia and the Western world over the situation in Ukraine to a new level. For the past several days, Russia has amassed military troops in and around Crimea. On Saturday, the military actually advanced out of Crimea to a nearby village, to claim a natural gas distribution center.
U.S. and other Western officials are vowing an economic price for Russia’s actions, and have pushed to isolate Russia on the world stage. On Saturday, Russia had to veto a United Nations resolution condemning its actions in Crimea, as nearly all voting member nations supported it. China, usually a Russian ally, abstained from the vote.
“They know there are costs to their actions here,” said Dan Pfeiffer, senior White House adviser, on “Meet the Press.” “Russia is isolated in the world ... the more they escalate, the longer this goes, the more those costs will escalate.”
—This report was first published on Sunday at 2:43 p.m. and last updated on Monday at 6:09 a.m.