FILE - A woman rides in a Yandex taxi in Kiev, Ukraine, May 16, 2017.
FILE - A woman rides in a Yandex taxi in Kiev, Ukraine, May 16, 2017.

U.S. officials say they are closely following Ukraine’s order blocking access to a number of Russian websites in the latest round of sanctions over Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea.

A U.S. State Department official on background told VOA that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's recent decision to cut access to several popular Russian websites, such as search engine Yandex, for three years, undermines Kyiv's constitutionally enshrined right to free expression.

Despite Russian-controlled media campaigns that seek to undermine Western media — and the Ukrainian government — with fake stories and false information, "freedom of expression is a key element of every healthy democracy, and it is enshrined in the Ukrainian Constitution.”

"We call on the Ukrainian government to find a way to protect its national interests that does not undermine its constitutional principles," the official said.

Asked if there was any communication between U.S. and Ukrainian officials prior to Poroshenko's announcement of the ban, the official said although they could not comment on private diplomatic conversations regarding specific issues, "we have routinely engaged in conversations with the government of Ukraine about the importance of upholding free expression."

The listed websites were still functioning in Ukraine on Thursday, and it is unclear how and when the government plans to block them.

The Ukrainian government cited security concerns, saying the ban was imposed partly to protect against companies "whose activities threaten the information and cyber security of Ukraine," according to a statement released by the Security and Defense Council.

Kyiv-based Freedom House analyst Matthew Schaaf on Wednesday told VOA the media watchdog was concerned about Poroshenko's decision, and that the justification for targeting only specific companies and networks remained unclear.

"We look at this as another effort to block access to media and Internet resources, and this is becoming a tendency, unfortunately, in Ukraine," he told VOA's Russian service. "The issue is that it ultimately leads to people having less access to information, less access to news, less access to discussions about important social and political issues."

Schaaf also said that although many Kyiv residents may engage news and information via social media platforms such as Facebook, fellow Ukrainians in other parts of the country depend disproportionately on Russian-made platforms such as Odnoklassniki.

"With [Poroshenko's] decision, the participation aspect is especially worth highlighting," he said. "Odnoklassniki and other social media networks, I don't use them myself, but a lot of people in Ukraine do. ... What are those people going to do now, when they don't have access to those resources of news and information about what the government is doing?"

Odnoklassniki and another social media site, Vkontakte, plus Yandex were among those added recently to the list of over 400 Russian firms blacklisted by Kyiv since Moscow's annexation of Crimea and consequent pro-Russian separatist uprising in 2014. According to the Reuters news agency, the Kremlin has threatened retaliation.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Ukrainian and Russian services.