Obama and EU slap first sanctions on Russia over Ukraine crisis

Washington and Brussels also warn of further sanctions

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 March, 2014, 9:40am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 March, 2014, 1:58pm
  • Crimean parliament votes to secede from Ukraine
  • Obama tells Putin: sanctions for ‘violation of sovereignty’
  • German chancellor Angela Merkel: 'We're ready to act'

The United States and the European Union on Thursday unveiled sanctions to punish Russia for occupying Crimea, imposing visa restrictions on individuals and sharpening rhetoric in what has rapidly degenerated into the worst east-west crisis since the end of the cold war.

In their first concrete response to Russia’s move to wrest the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine, Washington and Brussels also warned of further sanctions, such as asset seizures, if Moscow does not relent in the stand-off.

“I am confident that we are moving forward together, united in our determination to oppose actions that violate international law,” Barack Obama told reporters in Washington. “That includes standing up for the principle of state sovereignty."

After an emergency EU summit in Brussels, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said: “We have experienced very much disappointment in recent days and we’re ready to act.

“We are in close coordination with the United States on this. We cannot go back to business as usual” with Russia, she added.

The urgency was heightened after the Crimean parliament abruptly, and unanimously, voted to secede from Ukraine and reposition the peninsula as part of Russia. It brought forward a referendum on secession to 16 March, but said the plebiscite would merely rubber-stamp its own decision. The sudden move elicited howls of protest from the new authorities in Kiev, and grave warnings from the west.

“The decision to hold a referendum in Crimea is illegal and not compatible with the Ukrainian constitution,” said Merkel.

The White House said its visa bans would affect an unspecified number of Russian and Ukrainian individuals immediately, with the threat of asset seizures and bans doing business in the US hanging as a deterrent against further escalation in the Ukraine. The EU for its part agreed to suspend visa and investment talks with Russia and held out the prospect of a full-blown trade and economic conflict with Russia unless there was a diplomatic breakthrough.

“The solution to the crisis in Ukraine must be based on the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine,” said the EU summit statement. “It would be a matter of great regret if Russia continued to refuse to participate in a productive dialogue with the government of Ukraine."

The EU and America have struggled to align their response to Russia’s boldest military adventure since the 2008 Georgia war because the stakes are very different for both parties. EU-Russia trade volumes, including vast gas imports and engineering exports, are 15 times the level of US-Russia trade. Washington has far less to lose from a trade war, and has hitherto talked tougher.

The EU said Moscow had days to open negotiations with Kiev and an international contact group that is being established to deal with the crisis.

The White House rejected criticism that sanctions risked escalating the crisis, insisting there remained a way for Russia to defuse the situation if it chose.

“While we take these steps I want to be clear that there is also a way to resolve this crisis that respects the interests of the Russian as well as the Ukrainian people,” said Obama, repeating calls for international monitors to be allowed into Crimea and other parts of the Ukraine to ensure Russian interests are not threatened.

But Obama’s rhetoric was more combative than of late and he accused Russia of not just “violating sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the Ukraine but of “stealing the assets of the Ukrainian people”.

“In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders,” he added.

It was clear that the sharpening of the western response was both a result of exasperation with Russia’s refusal to make concessions in negotiations in Paris on Wednesday, the first direct talks between Moscow and Washington on Ukraine, and also designed to pile the pressure on Putin to try to make him reverse course.

Representing the camp arguing for a hard line against Russia, Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, said he was “pleased” things were moving in the right direction. “It was a heated discussion,” he said. The Europeans and the Americans are focused on forcing Russia to open a dialogue with Ukraine on the crisis. The acting Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, pledged that Kiev was ready to talk to Moscow. Ukraine was ready for “co-operation, but not surrender”.

“Mr Putin, tear down this wall,” he said, echoing Ronald Reagan’s demand of Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, “tear down this wall of intimidation, of military aggression”.

Senior EU officials said that the summit was focusing on how the contact group could be formed. Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Poland would be represented on the group from the EU if it received a green light.

Merkel said the proposed contact group would help ensure free and fair elections in Ukraine in May, would monitor the situation in Crimea, and examine minority rights to ensure that ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers suffered no discrimination.

Dalia Grybauskaite, the Lithuanian president, demanded strong action to counter Russia’s “open and brutal aggression,” saying: “Russia today is trying to rewrite the borders of Europe after world war two, that’s what’s going on. If we allow this to happen, next will be somebody else. We felt it on our skin, it is our neighbourhood."

He added: “This is not only about Ukraine, it is also about the Baltic region. About sanctions, let’s first understand that Russia today is dangerous, that Russia today is unpredictable."

In another unexpectedly bold move the EU decided to push ahead much faster than predicted with a political pact drawing Ukraine closer to Europe, the initial spark for the crisis last November when the deposed President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign the agreement.