President Barack Obama today publicly declared his opposition to the effort by Crimea’s regional parliament to secede from the Ukraine.
The local parliament voted 78 to 0 on Thursday for a secession referendum. The ballot is to be held March 16, leaving Obama few options to block the likely vote to secede.
The “referendum on the future of Crimea would violate the Ukraine constitution and violate international law,” Obama said in an unexpected five-minute TV-ready statement in the White House briefing room.
“In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders,” Obama said in his midday appearance.
The dramatic appearance helps Obama show that he’s keeping pace with Russia’s dramatic intervention in Ukraine.
The crisis has pulled time and media attention away from Obama’s escalating midterm election campaign, which focuses on his demand for a higher minimum wage.
Obama has repeatedly signaled that he wants to deescalate the Ukraine dispute. On Thursday, he suggested the crisis could be defused by protecting civil rights for ethnic Russians living in the Ukraine, and by guaranteeing Russia’s naval bases in Crimea.
“That’s the path of deescalation,” Obama said.
However, Russia’s hardline president, Vladimir Putin, has not given any sign of backing down.
Putin’s determination creates a growing risk for Obama that he may be seen as ineffective and weak by American voters prior to the November elections.
Putin is a Russian nationalist, and he is supported by many Russians who mourn the post-1989 breakup of the huge Soviet Union and at various insults to Russia’s former greatness. For example, many Russian leaders have denounced Obama’s repeated expressions of sympathy for Russian gays and lesbians.
“Nobody’s more offended than me about some of the anti-gay and lesbian legislation that you’ve been seeing in Russia,” Obama said prior to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
A Russian news agency said the referendum would allow Crimean voters to decide whether the Crimea should join Russia or remain an autonomous region in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian government is working to block the Crimean referendum.
On Thursday morning, U.S. administration officials announced that they have established rules to sanction people who have undermined Ukraine’s integrity. White House press secretary Jay Carney repeatedly rebuffed later media questions about whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will be hit by sanctions, which include travel curbs.
Russia intervened in the Ukraine following the mass protests in February that collapsed an unpopular pro-Russian government in the Ukraine.
Russian troops have taken over key points in the Crimean peninsula, which is located in south-eastern Ukraine. The majority of people living in the Crimea are Russians. Since the Crimean intervention, many ethnic Russians living in the Russian-majority eastern Ukraine have demonstrated for closer ties to Russia.
Western Ukraine, alongside the border with Poland, is dominated by nationalist Ukrainians who are hostile to Russian rule.
Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, is based in central Ukraine.
Administration officials suggested Thursday that Russia might intervene in the Russian-majority eastern provinces of Ukraine.
Russian movements in eastern Ukraine “would be a significant escalation… that’s something we’re watching closely,” an administration official said Thursday.