WHITE HOUSE— President Barack Obama says the United States considers an upcoming referendum on Ukraine's future illegal and on Thursday he ordered restrictions on U.S. visas and financial sanctions for Russians and Ukrainians who are impeding the democratic process in Ukraine.
The new set of visa restrictions and financial sanctions are part of what Obama says is the cost that Russia will have to pay for interfering in Ukraine.
Speaking to reporters Thursday at a previously unannounced White House briefing, the president condemned a referendum that has now been set for March 16 on whether Ukraine's Crimea region should become part of Russia.
“The proposed referendum on the future of Crimea would violate the Ukrainian constitution and would violate international law. Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine. In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders,” he said.
Obama signed an executive order that authorizes sanctions on those responsible for violating what the president says are the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.
U.S. officials did not name the individuals who will have their visas to visit the United States cancelled or denied, but said they will include both Russians and Ukrainians who have been most directly involved in destabilizing the country.
They declined to say whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will be among those targeted.
On Capitol Hill, some U.S. lawmakers praised the move. Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said penalties should be stepped up.
“Denying and revoking visas of Russian regime members who are connected to belligerent actions in Ukraine and freezing and prohibiting any of their U.S. property transactions are moves in the right direction, but now we must name and shame these persons,” she said.
The United States has protested what it says is Russia's deployment of troops in the Crimean peninsula - an act Washington says is in direct violation of Ukraine's sovereignty.
The Obama administration has been working to de-escalate the crisis. Officials on Thursday said the penalties could be removed if Moscow returns its troops to Russian bases in Ukraine and recognizes Ukraine's new government. At the same time, Washington warns it will step up sanctions if Russia should decide to move forces farther into eastern Ukraine.
Secretary of State John Kerry has been in Rome meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, but there has been no agreement on ending the crisis.