Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, left, and US President Barack Obama speak during meetings in the White House March 12. Yatsenyuk has urged Russia to pull back its troops in Crimea and begin negotiations to settle the crisis. (Agence France-Presse)
WASHINGTON — On the eve of US Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Eastern Europe to confer with NATO partners Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, American officials have turned up the heat being applied to Russia over its invasion of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea.
On Monday morning, the White House announced that it had slapped sanctions on 11 prominent Russian and Ukrainian political figures, a day after the European Union announced similar travel and economic sanctions on 21 Russian and Ukrainian politicians and advisers to Russian President Vladimir Putin, while also denouncing a March 16 secession referendum held in Crimea as “illegal.”
According to the tallied results, 123 percent of the total population of Crimea “voted” in the referendum called by local officials to decide if the territory should remain part of Ukraine or become part of the Russian Federation, according to a senior US administration official who asked to speak on background in a conference call with reporters. The official added that though turnout has been estimated at 83 percent, a full 99 percent of the Crimean Tartar minority refused to participate in the vote, and that there is evidence that ballots arrived in Crimea for the referendum already marked as voting “yes” for secession from Ukraine.
The sanctions announced on Monday place severe travel restrictions and froze the assets of Russian officials such as close Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov; Sergei Glazyev, an economist who advises Putin on Ukraine; and Andrey Klishas, the author of a bill that authorizes the seizure of assets held by Westerners.
“These are by far the most comprehensive sanctions applied to Russia since the end of the Cold War, far and away so,” said one US official on the call.
It’s expected that Putin will speak to both houses of the Russian Parliament on Tuesday where he will likely endorse the annexation of Crimea into the Russian Federation, a move that would likely draw further American and European response.
While US officials declined to outline what those measures might be, one official told reporters that “we would continue to be able to designate individuals … as well as to contemplate additional actions.” Some of those actions would include focusing efforts on Russia’s defense industry.
Ukraine Interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who spoke at the Atlantic Council in Washington on March 12 following his meeting with President Obama, said “we still believe that there is an option to tackle this military crisis with political and diplomatic tools. As time is going and the clock is ticking, these chances are not as big as [they] were, for example, last week.
“These options, these tools are still on the table. We urge [the] Russian Federation immediately to pull back its forces to barracks and to start real talks and negotiations. We as a new Ukrainian government are ready to hold an open dialogue [on] how to tackle these dramatic crises of the 21st century.”
Amid the escalating diplomatic and economic tensions, the defense ministries of Ukraine and Russia reached a short-term truce on March 16 that the two sides said would expire on March 21.
“An agreement has been reached with [Russia’s] Black Sea Fleet and the Russian Defence Ministry on a truce in Crimea until March 21,” Ukraine’s acting defense minister, Ihor Tenyukh, told journalists after a cabinet meeting in Kiev, according to a Reuters report.
He added, “no measures will be taken against our military facilities in Crimea during that time. Our military sites are therefore proceeding with a replenishment of reserves.” ■
Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report.