U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks on raising the minimum wage at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Conn. March 5, 2014.
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White House heightens pressure on Russia over Ukraine

Updated

The White House will begin diplomatically targeting individuals working against the new government in Ukraine, the administration announced Thursday.

“These decisions continue our efforts to impose a cost on Russia and those responsible for the situation in Crimea,” President Obama said Thursday in a brief statement at the White House. He made it clear that the U.S. would try to pressure and punish Russia economically and diplomatically, all the while pushing for a solution that didn’t involve the military.

Later in the day, Obama spoke over the phone for more than an hour with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. According to a White House release, Obama reiterated that Russia’s actions are in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and that a diplomatic resolution was possible. Such a resolution, Obama said, would involve the international community facilitating direct talks between the governments of Russia and Ukraine. The president indicated that Russian forces would be allowed to return to their bases, and that international monitors would support the Ukrainian people as they prepare for elections in May.

The State Department will place visa restrictions on individuals “threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine” and Obama has also ordered financial sanctions to be set up against those “responsible for activities undermining democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine,” making good on days of threats that the United States may use economic pressure to move Russia toward a diplomatic solution.

There’s no list of targeted people or companies yet, but a senior administration official told NBC News that it puts them ”on notice they could be targeted for sanctions.” As for visas, the administration has made it clear that both Russian and Ukranian individuals will be affected by the move and will see their visas revoked.

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In a press briefing following the president’s remarks, Press Secretary Jay Carney did not clearly answer whether these sanctions would apply to Putin. However, a senior administration official told NBC News that Putin is not likely to be personally sanctioned. 

“It is an unusual and extraordinary circumstance to sanction a head of state, and we would not begin our designations by doing so,” the official said.

The sanctions announcement comes after Russian troops seized control of government buildings and critical infrastructure throughout the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, with no sign of an immediate resolution.

“President Obama has been clear that we cannot allow Russia or any country to defy international law with impunity,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a press conference from Rome after meetings on Libya and the situation in Ukraine, but emphasized that the country hoped to resolve the crisis diplomatically.

In the president’s statement, he outlined that diplomatic resolution: let in international monitors, return Russian troops to their Crimean base, and help Ukraine hold fair elections as planned in May.

“That’s the path of de-escalation,” he said. “But if this violation of international law continues, the resolve of the United States … and our allies will remain firm.”

Obama attempted to paint a picture showing that world powers are united on the matter.

“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,” he said.

While the U.S. and European allies are on the same page about what they see as Russia’s off-ramp, the European Union has shied away from the idea of using sanctions, fearing the trade repercussions.

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Obama’s sanctions, accomplished through an executive order, will target anyone who challenges the Ukrainian government in Kiev. It’s a malleable order that allows the United States “to sanction those who are most directly involved in destabilizing Ukraine, including the military intervention in Crimea, and does not preclude further steps should the situation deteriorate.”

The pressure heightens as the U.S. moves forward with a $1 billion aid package, which the House of Representatives approved with overwhelming bipartisan support Thursday afternoon. The vote was 385-23, with no Democrats opposed. The legislation, which authorizes loan guarantees to the new Ukrainian government, now moves to the Senate.  

In their respective press statements, both Kerry and Obama condemned Crimea’s referendum to rejoin Russia, and both argued that it is a not a decision that can be made by Crimea alone. 

“The proposed referendum would violate the Ukraine’s constitution and international law,” Obama said Thursday. “In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.” 

“Any referendum on Ukraine is going to have to be absolutely consistent with Ukrainian law,” Kerry said. “It’s my understanding that the constitution of Ukraine requires an all-Ukraine referendum,” Kerry said in response to a question from a reporter following his statement. “In other words, every part of Ukraine would have to be part of a referendum.” 

On Thursday, Crimea’s pro-Russian local government voted to appeal to Moscow to let the region join the Russian Federation. If the Kremlin agrees to welcome the nation back into the fold, a ballot referendum in two weeks will allow its citizens to vote. 

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

The Crimean ballot referendum offers two options to citizens.

  • Are you in favor of reuniting Crimea with Russia as a subject of the Russian Federation?
  • Are you in favor of retaining the status of Crimea as part of Ukraine?

A simple majority will decide the ballot. But critics question whether a fair ballot can actually take place while Russian forces control the region: an estimated 16,000 unmarked Russian troops have occupied the region since the weekend.

The region’s vote will likely feed into Putin’s narrative that he is responding to the people’s demands, not pushing his own agenda.

Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov called on the West to put aside geopolitical motivations earlier this week and allow the Ukrainian people to decide their own future.

“We call for a responsible approach, to put aside geopolitical calculations, and above all to put the interests of the Ukrainian people first,” he said, while his country denied that there is any military force being used in Crimea.

The vote certainly ups the ante as the U.S. and other nations press for a diplomatic solution that would preserve the status quo, as decided diplomatically by the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which put Crimea under Ukraine’s sovereignty.

The first deputy of Crimea’s parliament, Rustan Temirhaliev, said the government was free to do this because the Kiev interim government is not legitimate.

“Ukrainian forces in Crimea now become the occupiers,” he said of the parliament’s vote in favor of Russian sovereignty.

Crimea, which has operated as a part of Ukraine but with an autonomous, local government since 1992, is at the center of a growing, international dispute between Russia and Ukraine, backed by Western regions like the United States. The peninsula’s citizens are mostly ethnic Russians.

Following deadly protests and the overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, Russia sent military forces into the Crimean peninsula, where Russia operates a naval base. Putin has denied the presence of Russian troops and downplayed his country’s response to the neighboring revolution, earning the ire and derision of the international community.

On Wednesday, as diplomatic talks progressed in Paris, the U.S. issued a scathing takedown of the Russian government’s narrative of the crisis in Ukraine. In the 10-point fact sheet, they condemned Russia for spinning “a false narrative to justify its illegal action in Ukraine.”

“The world has not seen such startling Russian fiction since Dostoyevsky wrote, ‘The formula ‘two plus two equals five’ is not without its attractions,’” the statement said, referencing one of Russia’s most famous novelists.

Erin Delmore contributed reporting. 

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White House heightens pressure on Russia over Ukraine

Updated