WASHINGTON— Referendums went forward Sunday in eastern Ukraine in two regions seeking possible independence from Kyiv, despite widespread statements condemning the votes as illegal and illegitimate. The controversial votes were held as Ukraine prepares for a nationwide poll on May 25 to elect a new president.
Adding to the tension is that there is no sign Russian President Vladimir Putin is making good on last week’s promise to withdraw troops from the Ukrainian border, said U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
“They are not leaving as far as we can tell. You would have to ask President Putin as to why he says they are leaving, when in fact they are not,” Hagel said on ABC's This Week news program.
Sanctions imposed by the United States and its NATO allies do not appear to have altered Moscow’s aggressive posture toward Ukraine.
“Russia continues to isolate itself for a short term gain. The Russians may feel that somehow they are winning. But the world is not just about short term,” Hagel added.
Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, wants the United States to target entire sectors of the Russian economy before Ukraine’s presidential elections May 25.
“This is the same playbook that we saw in Crimea playing out in eastern Ukraine. It is an insurgency-type action by the Russians to create unrest,” Ayotte said.
“It is time for the administration to issue the sectoral sanctions before the [May 25] elections, so those elections will not be disrupted, so they can go forward. I believe issuing the sanctions when the elections are interfered with are too late,” she said.
Senator Lindsey Graham, also a Republican, wants President Barack Obama to seek formal congressional approval of further punitive measures against Russia.
“Instead of doing this by executive order, Mr. President, come to the Congress and see if you could get bipartisan buy-in (support) for sectoral sanctions, which would send a stronger message to Putin. It would hurt the Russian economy more, and I think it would bolster our allies,” Graham said.
Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, agrees Russia must pay a heavier price, but says the United States cannot do it alone.
“I think we should be pushing the Europeans hard for sectoral-based sanctions,” Murphy said.
“The fact is, the United States acting unilaterally on sanctions may harm our security interests, not advance them. U.S. sanctions alone are not enough to change the calculus on the ground in Moscow. And ultimately they may give political impetus to Putin within Russia to continue his provocations,” he added.
Late Saturday, the Obama administration restated its threat to “impose greater costs on Russia", but did not say when it might do so.