Despite international pressure, the Crimean region of Ukraine on Sunday went ahead with a Moscow-backed “referendum” declaring its desire to break away and join the Russian Federation. In response, President Obama signed a new executive order authorizing new sanctions against Russian government officials, or as one senior administration official referred to them in a call with the press “government cronies.”
In particular, the order released on Monday named seven Russians, described as being architects or clear supporters of the annexation of Crimea, whose assets in the United States are now frozen. Another four Ukrainians — including ousted president Viktor Yanukovych — also were designated under the previously issued executive order outlining sanctions authority against those seeking to destabilize Ukraine. All 11 designees are also banned from travel to the United States.
“We’ll continue to make clear to Russia that further provocations will achieve nothing except to further isolate Russia,” Obama said in the White House Briefing Room on Monday. “The United States stands with the people of Ukraine and their right to determine their own destiny.”
In a call with the press, Obama administration officials defended the strength of the sanctions issued as well as their choice of initial targets. While several of these individuals may not necessarily have assets in the United States, one official said, “if any of these individuals have assets outside of Russia, in Europe, in the Gulf, in Asia even, they will have difficulty” accessing those funds. Russian president Vladimir Putin was left off of this round of sanctions, a decision prompted both by the fact that its early in the American response and that sanctioning a head of state is generally seen as an extraordinary measure.
European Union foreign ministers joined the U.S. on Monday in issuing its own set of sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian officials. The full list from Europe will include 21 individuals, which includes some overlap with the American list, and be released to the public on Tuesday, the adminstration officials told the press.
A third senior administration official pointed to the many irregularities in the Crimean vote as a sign of its illegitimacy. While the ballots only offered a choice of either joining Russia or becoming more independent from Ukraine, reports indicate that several ballots were “pre-marked,” according to the official. And according to a comparison of the most recent census data from Sevastapol and polling data, 123 percent of the city’s population voted on Sunday. In addition, 99 percent of the region’s Tatars ethnic minority declined to vote, boycotting what they said was a sham poll.
Also troubling is that no recognized international election monitors took part in the referendum. Russian-sponsored media touted the participation of several invited observers — including one who went on a lengthy diatribe against American involvement in Crimea — but none accredited with the Organisaton for Security and Cooperation in Europe or the United Nations. Tellingly, Crimean officials have declared that there were zero incidents of fraud or difficulties in voting reported to their electoral commission.
Despite those concerning discrepancies, pro-Russian Crimeans flocked to the streets and set off fireworks to celebrate the results on Sunday evening. Crimea’s local parliament took further steps towards declaring themselves an independent state on Monday, including declaring themselves the Republic of Crimea and petitioning to join the United Nations. Two of the main figures in the movement to join Russia — Crimean prime minister Sergey Aksyonov and speaker Vladimir Konstantinov — were among those who now find themselves under U.S. sanctions.
Soon after the polls closed on Sunday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney issued a statement declaring, “[W]e reject the ‘referendum’ that took place today in the Crimean region of Ukraine. 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.”
Just how alone Russia stands in supporting the Crimean referendum was put on stark display on Saturday at the United Nations. There a U.S.-drafted resolution — which declared the Crimean vote was illegal and illegitimate — was put to a vote. Thirteen members of the U.N. Security Council voted in favor, with Russia using its veto to kill the draft. Tellingly, and in a huge diplomatic win for Washington, China did not side with Russia as it usually does in such high stakes moments at the Council, but instead chose to abstain from the vote.
Marshaling international condemnation hasn’t stopped the United States from continuing to try to persuade Russia to change course through diplomatic means. Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Russian counterpart for over six hours on Friday in a last ditch attempt to keep Moscow from continuing its movement into Crimea. President Obama has likewise been working the phones, yesterday conducting his fourth call with Putin since the current phase of the crisis began.
Administration officials insisted that today’s sanctions designations “proves we have the ability to escalate our actions against Russia,” and that further pressure can be brought to bear against Russia in the event that Moscow continues its military incursion into Ukraine. Unfortunately, legislation meant to provide economic assistance to Ukraine and back the White House’s sanctions push is currently tied up in the Senate as Republicans attempt to use the bill to block new rules at the IRS.
Whether the pressure brought to bear so far has had any affect will become clearer on Tuesday. Putin is scheduled to address the Russian Duma in a rare statement to both the upper and lower houses in which he is expected to call for annexing Crimea. So far, the Duma has proved more than willing to go along with Putin’s excursion into Crimea, first granting him the authority to use force in Ukraine, then declaring that Crimea should be welcomed into the Russian Federation following its referendum on the matter.
That leaves open the door still for what will come next from Russia. While the Russian and Ukrainian defense ministries have reportedly declared a “truce” in Crimea until March 21, that declaration comes just a day after Russian-backed forces seized a natural gas plant outside of Crimea’s borders prompting fears of an expansion of Russia’s presence into eastern Ukraine. Russia’s foreign ministry laid the groundwork for such a potential over the weekend, reiterating its pledge to protect ethnic Russians from what it claims is rampant discrimination in Ukraine. Some analysts are beginning to believe that such an expanded presence would be necessary for Russia if for no other reason than prevent Crimea from becoming a lodestone around Moscow’s neck.