US to Move Against Top Russian Officials Linked to Crimea Crisis

Tuesday, 04 Mar 2014 10:57 PM

By Todd Beamon

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The United States is expected to ban visas and freeze assets of top Russian officials as President Vladimir Putin escalates military operations in Crimea and vows not to be deterred by any economic sanctions imposed punitively by the West.

The U.S. move also may include targeting state-run financial institutions for economic sanctions, The New York Times reports. Congress also is preparing its own set of punitive measures against Moscow.

"What we are also indicating to the Russians," President Barack Obama said on Monday, "is that if, in fact, they continue on the current trajectory that they’re on, that we are examining a whole series of steps — economic, diplomatic — that will isolate Russia and will have a negative impact on Russia’s economy and its standing in the world."

But Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State John Kerry, was even more blunt to the Times: "At this point, we’re not just considering sanctions, given the actions Russia is taking."

Meanwhile, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia told the Times that House leaders were contemplating measures that target "Russian officials, oligarchs and other individuals complicit in Russia’s efforts to invade and interfere with Ukraine’s sovereign affairs."

The moves came as the United States suspended military ties with Russia — including military exercises, bilateral meetings, port visits, and planning conferences — after the White House decision to call off trade talks with Moscow.

U.S. Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby urged Russian forces in Crimea to return to their bases. He said that the Pentagon was monitoring the situation closely and that no changes had been made to the military's stance in Europe or the Mediterranean.

The Obama administration has pledged $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine — and Kerry arrived in the strife-torn country early Tuesday.

The money was expected to aid Ukraine's troubled economy and help the country finance purchases of energy imports. Ukraine also is seeking a larger financial bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

On his arrival in Kiev, Kerry said Russia must pull back or "our partners will have absolutely no choice but to join us to continue to expand upon steps we have taken in recent days in order to isolate Russia politically, diplomatically and economically."

The European Union also is weighing sanctions, with the group's 28 leaders expecting to vote on measures at an emergency meeting in Brussels on Thursday.

As many as 16,000 Russian troops have been deployed in the last week — demanding that Ukrainian forces in Crimea surrender within hours or face armed assault. Russia has denied issuing any ultimatums, but it has been clear that Moscow is strengthening its hold on the Crimean Peninsula, the Times reports.

With more than 2 million residents, Crimea is a largely Russian-speaking peninsula on the northern tip of the Black Sea. It houses the region's only warm-water port, which gives Russia full access to the Mediterranean.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia said his country was in a much stronger position now than even a week ago, having rallied the support of the U.S. and the West.

He said it was unlikely that Kiev would ever go to war to prevent Russia from annexing Crimea, but said doing so wouldn't be necessary — describing the economic penalties and diplomatic isolation as more painful to Russians than bullets would be.

But at a session with reporters at the presidential palace, Putin talked of de-escalation in Ukraine, charging, however, that Moscow would use "all means at our disposal" to protect ethnic Russians in the country.

"It seems to me [Ukraine] is gradually stabilizing," Putin said. "We have no enemies in Ukraine. Ukraine is a friendly state."

Even though Putin pulled his forces back from the Ukrainian border on Tuesday, he charged that Western actions were driving Ukraine into anarchy. He also warned that any sanctions the West might place on Russia for its actions there would backfire.

Russia also agreed to a NATO request to hold a special meeting to discuss Ukraine on Wednesday in Brussels, before EU countries take their vote on whether to impose sanctions, opening up a possible diplomatic channel in the conflict.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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