WASHINGTON -- President Obama warned Monday that the penalties on Russia could be expanded if President Vladimir Putin's government does not back down from its military takeover of Crimea as the White House announced travel and financial sanctions on 11 senior Russian and Ukrainian officials.
"Further provocations will do nothing except to further isolate Russia and diminish its place in the world," Obama said in a statement at the White House. "We can calibrate our response on whether Russia chooses to escalate or deescalate the situation."
Administration officials said the sanctions, which the European Union also imposed, were “far and away” the stiffest penalties imposed on Russia since the end of the Cold War.
Obama signed an executive order that freezes U.S. assets and bans U.S. visas for seven Russian government officials, including a deputy prime minister and one of President Vladimir Putin's closest advisers. The sanctions also include the former president of Ukraine and his chief of staff, and two Crimea-based separatist leaders.
It wasn't immediately clear if any of them have U.S. assets or business interests.
White House officials said the sanctions target the chief architects and promoters of a referendum held Sunday in Crimea, which is under Russian military control. Voters in the mainly Russian-speaking region overwhelmingly approved a plan to secede from the Ukraine and join Russia.
In his statement, Obama said the referendum was “a clear violation of Ukrainian constitutional and international law and it will not be recognized by the international community.”
A senior administration official said the vote included “massive anomalies,” including impossibly high turnout in some areas. The official, who would not be named discussing the matter, also said there was “concrete evidence” that some ballots were “pre-marked” in support of secession.
The new sanctions focus on officials who “wield influence” in the Russian government and allow the U.S. to expand the penalties to Russian “cronies,” as one senior administration official put it.
Though the White House sought to portray the sanctions as a major step, former officials and other analysts caution that at this stage they remain limited in their impact.
Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Russia until last month, said recently that even if the administration turns sanctions to a far higher intensity by aiming them at Russian banks, they probably wouldn't change Putin's course.
Obama plans to travel to Europe next week and will consult with allies on the standoff in Ukraine. The president stressed that he still believes there’s a path to “resolve this diplomatically,” but only if Russia acknowledges Ukraine’s right to set its own course.
“The United States stands with the people of Ukraine and their right to determine their own destiny,” Obama said.