By Justin Sink - 03/17/14 04:28 PM EDT
Defying President Obama and other world leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday moved toward the annexation of Crimea by declaring it a sovereign country independent of Ukraine.
President Obama on Monday called the referendum “a clear violation of the Ukrainian constitution and international law" and announced a series of economic sanctions and travel restrictions aimed at Russian government officials, including some of Putin’s top advisers.
“We'll continue to make clear to Russia that further provocations will achieve nothing except to further isolate Russia and diminish its place in the world,” Obama said at the White House.
Members of Crimea’s parliament are expected to head to Moscow soon to discuss further procedures required to join Russia.
Monday’s developments escalated the standoff between the United States and Russia over Crimea, a region with an ethnic Russian majority that was once part of the Soviet Union.
Obama said Vice President Biden planed to travel to Europe Monday night to meet with the leaders of Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to discuss the crisis. Obama himself will head to Europe the following week to visit Brussels, the Netherlands and Italy.
“Our message will be clear: As NATO allies, we have a solemn commitment to our collective defense, and we will uphold this commitment,” Obama said.
But despite the announcement of the new sanctions, Obama said he still believed there existed “a path to resolve this situation diplomatically in a way that addresses the interests of both Russia and Ukraine.” [Read executive order authorizing sanctions below.]
The sanctions announced Monday will hit two aides to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a deputy Russian prime minister, the de facto head of Crimea, and former Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych, among others.
Administration officials said the move represented “by far the most comprehensive sanctions” applied to Russia since the end of the Cold War. Under the president’s order, targeted individuals’ assets within the U.S. will be frozen, and no American citizen can do business with them.
“If they want to transact in dollars, they will be unable to do so,” said one official, who added that, in the past, individuals targeted for American sanctions “tend to find great difficulty in accessing financial services elsewhere.”
The White House also noted the Russian stock market had declined 14.7 percent, and the ruble had depreciated almost 3 percent against the dollar since the Russian incursion. On Monday, Russian Deputy Economy Minister Sergei Belyakov hinted at the economic costs in comments reported by Reuters.
"The economic situation shows clear signs of a crisis," Belyakov told a business conference.
Administration officials also downplayed the threat of reciprocal sanctions, saying they were “confident” they could impose the costs on Russia.
"Frankly, Russia stands a lot more to lose from political and economic isolation than the United States,” one official said, noting that Europe stood with the United States.
“The world is with us.”
The White House said Monday it would also seek to identify other Russians with ties to Putin who might not serve in an official government capacity.
A senior administration official said the sanctions were intended to target the personal wealth of Putin's "cronies" but not the companies they manage on behalf of the Russian state.
“We recognize that the Russian leadership derives significant support from, and takes action through, individuals who do not themselves serve in any official capacity,” the White House said. “Our current focus is to identify these individuals and target their personal assets, but not companies that they may manage on behalf of the Russian state.”
Putin was himself notably absent from those subjected to sanctions. A senior administration official said it was “highly unusual and rather extraordinary” for the U.S. to sanction another head of state.
But officials said the list was intended to intensify pressure on Putin’s political and financial allies, targeting individuals “who have dedicated significant resources” and “material support” to help the Russian leader.
“These are clearly people who are very close to President Putin, who provide him with a lot of the advice, support and implementation of the policies we’ve seen in Crimea,” one senior administration official said.
Putin is expected to address a joint session of the Duma on Tuesday, and administration officials suggested the leader might recommend the formal annexation of Crimea. The U.S. stressed that such a move could result in additional financial penalties, describing the sanctions as “scalable.”
Still, U.S. officials said they were “continuing to keep the door open for de-escalation” and were willing to engage in a dialogue with Russian senior officials if they were willing to enter “serious” negotiations.
Senior administration officials also looked to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Crimea referendum, saying there was “some concrete evidence” ballots had arrived premarked in favor of secession. U.S. officials also contended that, in some areas, more than 100 percent of the census population turned out to vote, and noted dryly that there had not been a single complaint about voting practices.
Separately, the European Union also moved to impose sanctions on 21 officials from Russia and Ukraine.
Lithuania's foreign minister, Linas Linkevicius, tweeted that the EU’s foreign affairs council agreed to restrict the travel and freeze the assets of officials responsible for the secession vote, and hinted that more measures are to come.
The EU is expected to weigh sanctions against additional Russian officials, including senior government and business leaders with close ties to Putin, during a meeting later this week in Brussels.
Obama also insisted to Putin that a diplomatic de-escalation of the situation was impossible until Moscow withdrew its forces from Crimea.
"President Obama reiterated that a diplomatic resolution cannot be achieved while Russian military forces continue their incursions into Ukrainian territory and that the large-scale Russian military exercises on Ukraine’s borders only exacerbate the tension," the White House said in a statement.
White House press secretary Jay Carney, in a separate statement, called the vote “dangerous and destabilizing.”
— This report was first published at 9:56 a.m. and last updated at 4:28 p.m.