WASHINGTON – President Obama on Thursday declared that a referendum asking Crimean voters if they want to join Russia would violate Ukraine’s constitution and international law, and he promised to keep ramping up the pressure on Russia until it stands down in the region.
“In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders,” the president said in the White House briefing room.
Obama also said he is tightening sanctions as part of an effort to “impose a cost” on Russia for its intervention, and he praised the European Union for taking similar steps to penalize those involved in the dispute.
“I’ve spoken to several of our closest friends around the world, and I’m pleased that our international unity is on display at this important moment,” Obama said during a brief appearance.
The remarks come just hours after Obama announced he would ban Russian officials and others involved in threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine from receiving U.S. visas.
Along with other visa restrictions on individuals carrying out human rights abuses in Ukraine, the latest move marks a further escalation of U.S. pressure on Russia since its military seized control of the Crimean peninsula in neighboring Ukraine.
Obama on Thursday ordered sanctions on individuals and groups responsible for undermining democratic institutions in Ukraine or threatening its peace and sovereignty. The White House did not name the individuals or groups it is targeting, but it fulfills U.S. pledges of the last few days to put pressure on people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In his remarks, Obama emphasized a “close coordination” with allies and praised the international solidarity he said is on display at the moment.
Forging that unity is a top priority for Obama right now. His administration is pushing world leaders to help put pressure on Russia in hopes that it will allow international monitors, withdraw troops to their barracks in Crimea, and support free and fair elections in Ukraine later this spring.
But much depends on how far Europeans are willing to go, and some leaders have expressed concern about the impact on their own economies if they enforce sanctions on Russia. Obama administration emissaries are out in full force, making the case that Europe has much more to lose if Ukraine erupts in military chaos.
Obama’s remarks were timed to coincide with an EU gathering in Brussels to talk about the latest developments in the crisis. At the top of the agenda is Thursday’s decision by the regional government in Crimea to hold a referendum on whether the region should secede from Ukraine and join Russia.
“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, and that includes standing up for the principle of state sovereignty,” Obama said. “The proposed referendum on the future of Crimea would violate the Ukrainian constitution and violate international law. Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine.”