Administration officials today announced a package of sanctions and visa curbs to penalize Russians and Russian groups involved in the partial invasion of Ukraine.
But the Russian-backed ethnic-Russian government in Crimea escalated the crisis today by declaring it would hold a referendum on whether to secede from Ukraine.
The Crimean peninsula is a Russian enclave within the independent country of Ukraine, which is mostly populated by ethnic Ukrainians who speak the Ukrainian language.
The referendum announcement “is clearly a violation of international law and of how these things are done,” an administration official told reporters Thursday morning.
“Decisions about Crimea or any part of the Ukraine need to be made with the government in Kyiv… only the people in Ukraine can make decisions about their future,” he added. The administration has taken to spelling and pronouncing the Ukrainian capital as “Kyiv” instead of “Kiev,” the more broadly-known, Russian-influenced spelling.
The crisis is a policy and ratings headache for President Barack Obama, who is increasingly focused on the November elections and domestic politics. Polls show the he is track to lose control of the Senate, unless the GOP leadership makes a major mistake that splits and alienates the party’s supporters and swing voters.
Administration officials sought Thursday to deter any Russian intervention deeper into Ukraine.
Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, is based in central Ukraine. The western Ukraine, alongside the border with Poland, is dominated by nationalist Ukrainians who are hostile to Russian rule.
So far, Russians have intervened in the Crimea, which is located in south-eastern Ukraine. However, many ethnic Russians living in eastern Ukraine have rallied and demonstrated for closer ties to Russia.
Russian movements into eastern Ukraine “would be a significant escalation… that’s something we’re watching closely,” said an administration official.
The administration officials brushed off calls for U.S. approval of large-scale exports of U.S. natural gas to Europe, which is now heavily reliant on natural gas pumped out of Russia for home heating.
Those natural-gas sales generate much revenue for the Russian government, and give it diplomatic leverage over Europe.
“This has been a subject that we and the European have taken into account,” an official told reporters.
“We are very well aware of the dynamics… [and] over time, what you’re going to see is that if Russia continues to perpetuate this crisis… it is going to bring greater isolation to their economy,” he said.
Another official said the U.S. government is already trying to help Europe buy natural gas from other sources. That effort “it is beginning to yield results,” he said.