U.S. President Barack Obama Thursday took a strong stand against a planned referendum on the future of Ukraine's Crimea region. Obama imposed financial sanctions and travel restrictions on those the U.S. accuses of undermining democracy in Ukraine, even as thousands of Russian troops remained inside Crimea.
Congressional leaders are pledging support for those sanctions, and for the people of Ukraine.
The White House says President Obama has told his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, that Moscow's actions in Ukraine are a violation of that country's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Officials say the two leaders spoke for an hour on the telephone Thursday. It is their first known direct contact since Saturday, shortly after Russian forces took control in Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.
Meanwhile, as a crowd of Russian sympathizers stood in support, lawmakers in the Crimean parliament voted to hold a referendum later this month on whether Crimea should leave Ukraine and become part of Russia.
At the White House, President Barack Obama said the U.S. considers that referendum illegal:
"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," said President Obama.
The tense stand-off continues in the Crimea. Russian soldiers surround a military base in the mountains, with Ukrainian soldiers hunkered down inside.
And in Washington, President Obama said the United States is determined to work with its European Union allies to ensure that Russia pays a price for its intervention.
"This morning I signed an executive order that authorizes sanctions on individuals and entitites responsible for violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine or for stealing the assets of the Ukrainian people," said Obama.
The order is aimed at Russian officials as well as Ukrainians, stopping them from transfering wealth out of the U.S. It also cancels or denies their U.S. visas, although no targeted individuals are named.
The president called for Congress to take action and Republican House Speaker John Boehner welcomed the new sanctions.
"I support limited sanctions outlined by the president today to freeze some assets and block U.S. visas. It is a welcome first step, but we remain committed to working with the administration to give President Obama as many tools as needed to put President Putin in check and prevent Russia from infringing on the sovereignty of any of its neighbors," said Boehner.
Late Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to provide loan guarantees of $1 billion to Ukraine. It's a fraction of the Ukrainian government's request, but the first tangible congressional action, and awaits Senate approval.
On the Senate side, Democratic Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez lent his support to President Obama.
"President Putin’s game of Russian roulette has pointed the gun at the international community’s head. I believe this time he has miscalculated, and I certainly believe that we should not blink," said Menendez.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Rome Thursday. Lavrov said afterwards that there is still no agreement to end the crisis. And still, scenes like this one play out in an eastern Ukranian city where police cleared pro-Russian protestors from a regional government building they had occupied.