WASHINGTON – The Obama administration slapped new visa restrictions Thursday on Russian and other opponents of the new Ukraine government in Kiev and cleared the way for financial sanctions as the West began punishing Moscow for its occupation of Ukraine's Crimea region.
The new restrictions targeted an unspecified and unidentified number of people and entities that the Obama administration accused of threatening Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial borders.
The action was announced in Washington as Secretary of State John Kerry headed into a meeting in Rome with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. A U.S. official said Kerry urged the Russian government to talk directly to the Ukrainians and pressed for Russia to allow international monitors into Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
The anticipated financial sanctions will penalize "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 White House said in a statement. U.S. officials said Russian government officials and entities could be among those sanctioned, though President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to be targeted directly.
The penalties will deepen significantly if Russia presses into areas of eastern Ukraine, senior administration officials said, adding that there is currently no indication Moscow will take that step. The officials also indicated that the penalties could be ratcheted down if Russia pulls back its troops in Crimea and recognizes Ukraine's new government.
"We call on Russia to take the opportunity before it to resolve this crisis through direct and immediate dialogue with the government of Ukraine," the White House statement read.
A senior administration official said the new restrictions are aimed at Russians and Ukrainians in the strategic Crimea region. Crimea is a peninsula that hosts a major Russian navy base and is historically and culturally a Russian stronghold. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about restrictions that had not been announced and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Local government officials in Crimea are now seeking to separate from Ukraine and on Thursday set a March 16 date for a referendum vote on whether the region should become part of Russia.
U.S. officials quickly challenged the legitimacy of the referendum, saying any decisions on Crimea's future that do not involve the government in Kiev would violate international law. The officials also said they believed Russia has had a role in orchestrating the referendum.
The referendum did not affect the timing of Thursday's sanctions announcement, according to the officials, who insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the situation in Ukraine by name.
Ukraine's unrest peaked in February, after months of pro-Western protests seeking the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych in anger over economic woes and corruption. Yanukovych, who is pro-Russian, fled for protection to a location just outside of Moscow, and Putin sent troops into Crimea in a show of force against the upstart government in Kiev.
The visa bans will be imposed immediately and come in addition to an earlier State Department decision to deny U.S. entry to those involved in human rights abuses related to political oppression in Ukraine. Officials would not say whether Yanukovych was a target of the visa ban or the sanctions.
The sanctions plan, outlined in an executive order, lays the legal groundwork for the Treasury Department to impose financial penalties on offenders. The aim is clearly to punish the separatist movement in Crimea as well as Russia for its decision to send military forces there.
Specifically, the sanctions would target people who undermine Ukraine's democracy and new government; threaten the country's peace, security, stability and sovereignty; are linked to misappropriations of government assets; and try to assert governmental authority over any part of Ukraine without the consent of Kiev. They would also prohibit U.S. persons from doing business with those who have been sanctioned.
American sanctions against heads of state are extremely rare and typically are reserved for situations in which the U.S. is seeking regime change, making Putin unlikely to be a direct target of financial penalties, U.S. officials said.
The European Union has been considering its own sanctions against the pro-Russian movement, and the penalties announced Thursday were planned to coordinate with expected action in Brussels.
Congress has been rushing to impose hard-hitting sanctions on Russia in response to its takeover of Crimea, hoping Europe will follow the lead of the United States in upping the pressure on Putin's government.
The U.S. sanctions push represents a rare case of broad agreement among the Obama administration and Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress. But they all are also united in their concern that American economic penalties will mean little without the participation of European countries with far deeper commercial relations with Russia.
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, welcomed the sanctions and said the Ohio Republican is "committed to working with the administration to give President Obama as many tools as needed to put President Putin in check as well as prevent Russia from infringing on the sovereignty of any of its other neighbors."
Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, called the new penalties "a positive first step" that needs to be coupled with similar sanctions from Europe to underscore the costs — diplomatic and economic — of rejecting Ukraine's sovereignty.
"I hope that Russia can be dissuaded from further aggression and can be walked back from its perilous course," Schiff said. "But if not, the U.S. and its allies must be prepared to use all of the diplomatic and economic tools at its disposal to deter such reckless conduct."