WASHINGTON — Frustrated by the failure of Western sanctions and diplomacy to stop Russia from seizing Crimea, the Obama administration and its allies scrambled Wednesday to devise new and tougher economic penalties in hope of preventing President Vladimir Putin from moving forces into Ukraine's eastern territory.
A day after Putin signed a treaty to annex Crimea, U.S. officials acknowledged that Ukraine has lost the region. Pro-Russia forces seized control of two Ukrainian naval bases in the Black Sea peninsula on Wednesday, including the naval headquarters in Sevastopol. They were seen replacing Ukraine's flag with the Russian tricolor.
Ukraine's interim leaders in Kiev said they were making plans to evacuate their outnumbered military personnel from Crimea and to seek United Nations support to turn the disputed region into a demilitarized zone. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will meet with Putin in Moscow on Friday before flying to Kiev.
Moscow's military takeover in Crimea has created a tense divide between Europe and Russia, which is increasingly isolated. U.S. and European officials worry that if they fail to halt Putin, security may be at risk in Eastern Europe as well as parts of Central Asia with large ethnic Russian populations.
President Obama, who is heading to Europe on a long-scheduled trip Monday, said in TV interviews that he does not plan to launch "a military excursion" in Ukraine. But Obama told the KSDK television channel in St. Louis that the United States and its allies are ready to take "even more disruptive economic actions" against Russia.
"Obviously, we do not need to trigger an actual war with Russia," he said. "The Ukrainians don't want that. Nobody would want that."
Speaking to the KNSD station in San Diego, he said, "What we are going to do is mobilize all of our diplomatic resources to make sure that we've got a strong international coalition that sends a clear message, which is that Ukraine should decide their destiny."
U.S. officials aim to announce stiffer economic punishments as early as Thursday in response to what they call an illegal land grab by the Kremlin. The leaders of the European Union will meet in Brussels and are likely to coordinate new sanctions with the White House.
U.S. officials say they have legal authority to penalize officials in the chain of command in Russia and are considering sanctions on Putin's inner circle of advisors, Russia's most important state-owned enterprises and its defense industry and banks.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said officials have an "expansive range of potential designations for sanctions, including Russian government officials, the arms sector of Russia and individuals who, while not holding positions within the Russian government, have influence over or provide material support to senior Russian government officials."
The penalties that were announced Monday were far less onerous, targeting about two dozen mid-level Russian and Ukrainian officials with travel bans and asset freezes. The administration had hoped going easy would leave space for a possible diplomatic solution, so it did not target major parts of the economy or key decision makers.
"It's clear that sanctions against a few individuals didn't work," said a senior administration official, who asked to remain unidentified in discussing sensitive diplomacy. "We have to get much tougher to make sure Putin doesn't go further."
Europe appeared to be split into three camps.
Poland, the Baltic states, Sweden and the Netherlands are deeply alarmed by Putin's moves and want strong action. Britain, France and Germany have strong economic ties to Russia but are leaning toward a tougher position, convinced that inaction would set a dangerous precedent.
Greece, Spain, Italy, Cyprus and Bulgaria, which depend on Russian energy and trade, may resist much stiffer penalties, however, wary that they could boomerang and cause higher prices and political turmoil at home. "They feel their position is just too weak to take this on," said a European official.
Moscow said any expansion of sanctions is "unacceptable and will not remain without consequences."
U.S. officials are considering providing limited military aid to Ukraine, as a symbolic expression of support for the interim government that was formed when Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovich fled to Russia last month after a popular uprising. The aid could include what was described as small arms — typically pistols and assault rifles, plus ammunition — worth $25 million or less, the administration official said.
One U.S. military official said he doubted the White House would approve arms shipments, however, because Russia could see it as highly provocative.
"I don't foresee any appetite for lethal [aid] right now," he said.
Both European and U.S. officials have been startled by Putin's indifference to their efforts to restrain his actions in Ukraine.
Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, among others, have spent hours talking to Putin on the telephone in recent weeks, urging him to relent, and promising Russia greater involvement in Ukraine as its new government takes shape. U.S. officials also sought to establish back channel communications with Putin's inner circle in hope of influencing him.
But Putin ignored the leaders' entreaties, including their pleas that he at least leave the Crimea peninsula in a sort of legal limbo rather than moving to annex it two days after a hastily organized referendum on secession that the West said was illegal.
Russian news agencies on Wednesday cited Constitutional Court Chairman Valery Zorkin as saying the treaty signed by Putin has been ruled valid, thus clearing the way for Moscow to annex Crimea. The treaty now requires ratification by the Russian parliament.
On Friday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry flew to London and spent seven hours with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. But Lavrov, it turned out, didn't have authorization from Putin to negotiate on Ukraine.
Putin's signing of annexation papers at a ceremony Tuesday in Moscow was "a slap in the face," said Eugene Rumer, director of Russian studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "He was saying, 'I'm doing a victory lap — you can join me.'"
A senior European official acknowledged that a month into the Ukraine crisis, "there still seems to be no solution in sight."
Richter reported from Washington and Loiko from Moscow. Times staff writers Christi Parsons, Kathleen Hennessey and David S. Cloud in Washington contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun