In his attempt to exert pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Obama appeared at midday press briefing in Washington to confirm that he has signed off on diplomatic sanctions against Russian officials and entities as punishment for what the U.S. has characterized as Moscow's meddling in Ukraine.
Obama took the opportunity to say that a move in Crimea, in the southeast of Ukraine, to separate itself from the new government in Kiev does not have U.S. backing, however, saying that such a move would “violate the Ukrainian constitution and international law.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaking from Rome shortly after reiterated points made by Obama and said that the U.S. believes in the "self-determination of Ukrainians," even as he, too, rejected the new push by citizens and lawmakers in Crimea to push for the possibility of joining the Russian Federation.
European leaders, meanwhile, have hesitated in pushing through sanctions, saying that they are hoping that diplomatic efforts with Russia should be exhausted before making such moves.“Our objective is to de-escalate the situation,” said one EU official, speaking with the Guardian. “It’s a developing situation. We did get the Russians talking and engaging.”
With a set of meetings ongoing in Brussels, the EU did freeze assets of ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych along with his family members and other officials from his fallen goverment.
In the Crimea peninsula, where much of the political and military tensions have been focused this week, the regional government there has set a vote to determine whether or not it will remain part of Ukraine for March 16. The announcement was met with scorn from representatives in Kiev, who said it would not allow Crimea to secede, claim independence, or re-join Russia.
“My position is that this referendum is unconstitutional,” the Ukrainian finance minister, Pavlo Sheremeta, told reporters in Kiev.
According to the Guardian:
At a press conference in Crimean capital of Simferopol, Rustam Temirgaliev, the region’s deputy prime minister, said the referendum was being held purely to ratify the decision of the Crimean parliament to join the Russian Federation, and the parliament had appealed to Russia to assist with this.
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He said the decision, which also gave the go-ahead to the territory to begin preparations to join Russia, “comes into effect from the current moment”. The referendum would be held “only to confirm” the decision.
Temirgaliev said that as of Thursday, the only legal troops on Crimean soil were the Russian army. “Any troops of a third country will be treated as illegal band formations, with all the consequences that entails,” he said.
The New York Times adds:
News of the plan for an accelerated referendum drew an enthusiastic response from a handful of pro-Russian demonstrators in Sevastopol, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based.
“We’re already Russian,” declared Natasha Malachuk, a protester picketing a local security headquarters.
One man climbed up to place a Russian flag where the Ukrainian banner had hung outside the building. The little group cheered and chanted “Russia, Russia!”
“We’re citizens of Russia, we’re returning home,” said Vyacheslav Tokarev, a construction worker.
Sevastopol has a special autonomous status due to the presence of the Black Sea Fleet, which means that the city’s administration needs to vote formally to join Crimea before the referendum on uniting with Russia. The ballot was planned for Thursday.