Sanctions loom after Crimea vote

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U.S. policymakers are vowing action against Russia in response to Sunday’s vote by Crimea to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

The Obama administration, lawmakers from both parties and top European Union officials were denouncing the results of the referendum even as the vote was ongoing. Almost immediately after polls closed Sunday, the White House issued a statement repeating it would not acknowledge the results, calling it an outcome brought on by “violence and intimidation” from Russian troops.

Final results showed 97 percent support among Crimean voters for leaving Ukraine, an election official said Monday, according to the Associated Press. But the voting came about after Russian troops had amassed in and around Crimea, and took control of a natural gas distribution center near the region.

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Russia began showing force shortly after popular protests in Ukraine ousted a government aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and has shown little sign of backing down in the subsequent days.

Lawmakers are hoping that a combination of economic sanctions, global criticism and fierce rhetoric will dissuade Putin from going any further.

During a call on Sunday with 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 coordinate with European allies, is prepared to impose “additional costs on Russia for its actions.”

The White House said sanctions would be coming in short order, as lawmakers hope to pass a Ukraine aid bill including further sanctions when they return to Washington later this month.

“This referendum is in violation of international law. The United States is not going to recognize the results of that referendum,” said Dan Pfeiffer, senior White House adviser, on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “You can expect sanction designations in the coming days.”

Lawmakers closely monitoring the matter have emphasized the need for the Western world to present a united front, frequently calling on European allies to stand firm against Russia, bringing added pressure on Putin.

When asked if sanctions could have an impact, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Europe would play a crucial role.

“We have to wait for our European friends to tell us if they're willing to move forward,” he said on ABC’s “This Week. “I mean there's no doubt that if you cut off Russian gas to Europe, it will hurt. There's no doubt that if you freeze Russian assets in places like Germany and Great Britain, it will hurt them.”

European Union officials condemned the Crimea vote before polls closed, calling it an “unprovoked violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.” Top EU officials urged diplomacy instead of force, but stopped short Sunday of saying what the next step would be. Rather, foreign ministers would meet in Brussels on Monday to discuss “additional measures.”

Murphy was one of eight U.S. senators to travel to Ukraine over the weekend, where they reiterated their support for the new government, and condemned Putin for his actions.

To further underline the need for Europe to participate in any Russian pushback, several lawmakers argued Putin was not content to stop with control of Crimea, adding that outside nations will need to stand strong to keep him in check.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called Putin’s actions toward Ukraine the “single most serious act of aggression since the Cold War.”

“Are we going to stand by and say this is acceptable conduct? Because this isn’t the end of his ambition,” he said on “Meet the Press.”

“The United States and the West have to be very clear in their response, because [Putin] will calculate about how far he can go,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

But despite the tough rhetoric, the Crimea referendum occurred without actual legislation aiding Ukraine from the U.S. That’s because efforts to pass legislation aiding Ukraine and imposing tough sanctions on Russia has been bogged down amid a partisan fight.

Some Republicans have objected to provisions in the Senate version of the bill that would also authorize some reforms to the International Monetary Fund the administration has long advocated. That provision would shift funds at the IMF and authorize reforms agreed to at the international body in 2010.

Some GOP lawmakers, including leaders in the House, have criticize their inclusion, saying they are unrelated. Others have tried to tie the inclusion of the IMF provision to a measure delaying contentious rules pertaining to the tax-exempt status of groups engaging in political activity.

That debate slowed legislation easily approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Congress is out of session until March 24. It remains unclear how the legislation will be resolved, as top House Republicans have vowed to fight the IMF provision. Meanwhile, Menendez called it critical for assisting Ukraine, as he deemed the House aid bill, which lacked the IMF provisions and added sanctions, as insufficient.

“You can either have a fig leaf or something robust and meaningful as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did,” he said. “That's what's necessary to help the Ukraine.”