The US and Europe have hit Vladimir Putin’s inner circle with sanctions, but failed to dissuade the Russian leader from pursuing his apparent goal of annexing Crimea.
The White House said the measures were the toughest against Russia since the Cold War and warned it would target economic power brokers in Moscow if the Kremlin does not change course.
There was no sign of Putin backing down, however, and Crimea’s pro-Moscow authorities made plans to swiftly honour Sunday’s 96 per cent referendum vote to return to the Russian fold.
Putin took a step closer to formally annexing the territory by recognising its independence from Ukraine, opening the way for Russian MPs to later endorse its accession.
Tensions at their highest in decades
Monday’s dramatic developments marked the most direct clash between the West and the Kremlin in decades.
Sanctions also came from Canada and Japan, which denounced Russia’s “deplorable” move in recognising the breakaway vote.
Obama slapped sanctions on seven Russian officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, and four Ukrainians accused of usurping Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including ousted president Viktor Yanukovych.
“If Russia continues to interfere in Ukraine, we stand ready to impose further sanctions,” Obama warned.
The European Union also unveiled travel bans and asset freezes against 21 Russian and Ukrainian officials, including Vice Admiral Alexander Vitko, the head of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
“These are by far the most comprehensive sanctions applied to Russia since the end of the Cold War – far and away so,” a senior US official said.
Another official explained that the intent was to target those surrounding Putin, even if the measures did not take the extraordinary step of targeting the foreign head of state himself.
“If you look at the list of Russians who are being sanctioned here … they are the key ideologists and implementers and architects of this policy,” one official said.
Officials said that, for now, the sanctions would target individuals and not wider Russian business interests.
But they noted that the new executive order signed by Obama allows future measures to target “individuals with a great deal of influence over … Russian governmental policy and the economy who do not hold positions in the government”.
They would not confirm that was a reference to Russia’s vastly rich business tycoons, or oligarchs, who are believed to possess great political influence with the Kremlin.’
Diplomatic solution still possible
Obama said a diplomatic solution to the crisis was still possible if Russia pulls its troops back to barracks in Crimea, allows foreign observers to deploy, and agrees to negotiate with Ukraine.
But he warned: “Further provocations will just further isolate Russia and diminish their place in the world.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague called for dialogue, stressing that “for the UK and her allies, the Crimea remains part of Ukraine.
“Continuing to ignore those calls will bring serious consequences for Russia,” he said.
The Kremlin’s official website quoted Putin’s decree as recognising “the Republic of Crimea … as a sovereign and independent state”.
It was issued “considering the expression of the will of the people of Crimea at the general Crimean referendum”.
The decree added that it entered into force from the moment of its signature and included the time stamp of 10.30pm (0530 AEDT Tuesday).
On Tuesday, Putin will address both houses of the Russian parliament on the crisis sparked by pro-Kremlin forces’ effective seizure of the Black Sea peninsula at the start of the month.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “deeply disappointed and concerned” about Sunday’s vote.
He warned a “deterioration of the situation will have serious repercussions for the people of Ukraine, the region and beyond”.
Those targeted under Obama’s executive order will see assets and interests in America or under US jurisdiction blocked and Americans will be barred from doing business with them.
As well as Rogozin, who ridiculed Obama over the move, the list includes Vladislav Surkov and Sergei Glazyev, key aides to Putin.
The officials targeted in Crimea include Sergei Aksyonov, who has named himself the interim prime minister of the territory, and Vladimir Konstantinov, the speaker of the Crimean parliament.
The EU list includes Aksyonov and two other Russian officers: Anatoliy Sidorov, commander of the Western military district, and Alexander Galkin, head of the Southern military district.
In response, Rogozin – a former Moscow envoy to NATO known for his hawkish views of the West – tweeted in English: “I think some prankster prepared the draft of this act of the US President.”
Most of the international community has rejected the Crimea referendum as illegal and Ukraine said it was recalling its ambassador to Moscow for consultations.
But the undaunted government of Crimea took several decisive steps aimed at permanently severing its ties with Kiev.
It has begun seizing control of Ukrainian institutions and plans to set the peninsula’s clocks two hours forward to Moscow time.