Obama Imposes Visa Restrictions on Russian Officials Over Ukraine

EU warns Russia will face sanctions unless it initiates talks with Ukraine within days.

U.S. President Barack Obama ordered Thursday the freezing of U.S. assets and a ban on travel into the United States of those involved in the Russian military intervention into the Crimea region of Ukraine.

Obama said on Thursday that a proposed referendum in Crimea to join Russia would violate international law and said U.S. sanctions were aimed at punishing Moscow for its intervention in Ukraine.

"Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine," he said. 

The American order followed the European Union's freezing of assets on Wednesday against 18 people held responsible for embezzling state funds in Ukraine, including Yanukovych, his son and some of his closest allies. The EU also extended $15 billion in aid to help support the new Ukrainian government.

Russia has to launch negotiations with Ukrainian authorities in the "next few days" if it wants to avoid sanctions, EU President Herman Van Rompuy said on Thursday.

Such talks would need to produce results within a "limited timeframe," he warned. Otherwise, the European Union will consider measures such as travel bans, asset freezes and the cancellation of the EU-Russia summit.

EU leaders have also decided to warn Russia that if it destabilizes the situation in Ukraine any further, there would be "far-reaching consequences" for relations between Russia and EU countries - including in the economic sphere, Van Rompuy says.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking after a meeting of European Union heads of state in Brussels, said a referendum announced by Crimea's parliament on Thursday on joining the Russian Federation was "illegal and incompatible with Ukraine's constitution." Merkel added: "we condemn the violation of Ukraine's sovereignty with regard to Crimea and we consider its territorial integrity to be essential."

Also in Brussels, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that "What has happened with respect to the Crimea is unacceptable and there can be no business as usual with Russia."  

Also on Thursday, Reuters reported that Russian officials are pushing for the International Monetary Fund to move ahead with planned reforms without the United States, which could mean the loss of the U.S. veto over major decisions at the global lender, sources said.

The U.S. Treasury is now seeking to attach the funding to a financial aid package for Ukraine that is under consideration in Congress. It argues the reforms would allow crisis-hit countries like Ukraine to borrow more money from the IMF.

The White House said in a statement that the asset freeze order is "a flexible tool that will allow us to sanction those who are most directly involved in destabilizing Ukraine, including the military intervention in Crimea, and does not preclude further steps should the situation deteriorate."

In addition, the State Department is putting in place visa restrictions on a number of officials and individuals, reflecting a policy decision to deny visas to those responsible for or complicit in threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

The order, the White House said in a statement, is "a flexible tool that will allow us to sanction those who are most directly involved in destabilizing Ukraine, including the military intervention in Crimea, and does not preclude further steps should the situation deteriorate."

At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Rome to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, but no agreement was achieved, Interfax news agency reported.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has moved forces in the vicinity of Ukraine, sending a Navy destroyer to the Black Sea and deploying six fighter jets in neighboring Latvia to be part of an augmented air policing effort along the Baltic.

"We are going to augment our participation in NATO's ... air policing mission, and was advised this morning that we have six F-16s that have arrived in Latvia as of the last 24 hours," U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told a congressional committee on Thursday.

The USS Truxtun, a U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer, is heading to the Black Sea for what the U.S. military on Thursday described as a "routine" deployment that was scheduled well before the crisis in Ukraine.

The U.S. Navy said in a statement that the Truxtun left Greece on Thursday en route to the Black Sea and would conduct training with Romanian and Bulgarian naval forces.

Polish media reported the U.S. military will also send 12 F-16 fighter jets to Poland's Lask Base for a training exercise.

The United States wants Russian troops to return to their bases in Crimea and for Moscow to allow international monitors into the region to ensure the human rights of ethnic Russians there are protected.

The United States has engaged in global diplomatic efforts to gather opposition against Russia's deployment of troops in the Crimea region of southern Ukraine.

Reuters