President Obama says Crimea separation vote would break law

By Lara Jakes

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 6 2014 12:35 p.m. MST

President Barack Obama talks about the situation in Ukraine, Thursday, March 6, 2014, in the briefing room of the White House in Washington. The president said a referendum for Ukraine's Crimea region to separate and become part of Russia would violate international law.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama declared on Thursday that a referendum in 10 days on the future of a Ukraine's Crimea peninsula would violate international law. The United States also moved to impose visa restrictions and financial sanctions on Russians and Ukrainians for the moves Moscow already has made into Crimea.

Speaking from the White House, Obama said any decisions on the future of Crimea, a pro-Russian area of Ukraine, must include the country's new government.

"The proposed referendum on the future of Crimea would violate the constitution and violate international law," Obama said. "We are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders."

Obama spoke hours after a March 16 date was set for a referendum on whether the region should become part of Russia.

Russian forces began moving into Crimea about a week ago, despite Obama's warnings that there would be costs for such actions. Seeking to follow through on that threat, Obama moved Thursday to enact new visa restrictions on an unspecified and unidentified number of people and entities that the U.S. accused of threatening Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial borders. The restrictions were unlikely to directly target Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Obama also signed an executive order that will allow the U.S. to levy financial sanctions. In a statement, the White House said the penalties would target "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."

In Brussels, meanwhile, the European Union announced it was suspending talks with Russia on an economic pact and on a visa deal in response to the Russian intervention in Crimea. EU leaders, like Obama, threatened further sanctions if Russia pushes ahead.

"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," Obama said.

Senior Obama administration officials said penalties will deepen significantly if Russia presses into areas of eastern Ukraine, though they said there is currently no indication Moscow has taken 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.

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.

Crimea is a peninsula that hosts a major Russian navy base and is historically and culturally a Russian stronghold.

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.

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