Obama imposes new sanctions, warns Russia against further escalation

Participants in a rally in support of Crimea joining Russia, hold Russian flags in Red Square in Moscow, Tuesday, March 18, 2014. AP
President Barack Obama Thursday announced a second round of economic sanctions against Russia and said the U.S. was continuing to work with European countries to take “more severe actions” in seeking to force Russia to back off its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Speaking on the South Lawn of the White House before a trip to Florida, Obama said the U.S. will impose more sanctions on the Russian government, individuals tied to Russia\’s Crimea efforts, and one bank that provides material support to the Russian leadership.
Obama also said he had signed an order enabling the US to impose sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy.
Meanwhile EU leaders have arrived in Brussels amid warnings that they may impose tougher economic sanctions.
Tensions are high as Moscow approves a treaty enabling Crimea – an autonomous republic in Ukraine – to join Russia.
Obama said: "Russia must know that further escalation will only isolate it further from the international community."
He said the US was watching with concern the situation in southern and eastern Ukraine.
A White House official said the latest wave of US sanctions targeted 20 Russian individuals with interests in the Crimea.
The Russian bank being targeted – for supporting government officials – is Bank Rossiya, the US Treasury said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told her nation\’s parliament Thursday the EU is prepared to move to "Level 3" measures, which would include economic sanctions, if the situation worsens.
The EU has already imposed travel bans and asset freezes on Russian officials deemed responsible for the incursion into Crimea.
Merkel said the Group of Eight forum of leading economies is effectively suspended as long as the diplomatic standoff with Russia continues. Russia has been part of the G-8, along with Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.
Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said tensions between Ukraine and Russia pose “great risks to the countries themselves and beyond” and urged restraint by all parties.
Speaking after a meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ban said he “emphasised that all parties [should] refrain from any hasty or provocative actions that could further exacerbate the already very tense and very volatile situation.”
On Friday, Ban is expected to meet with Ukrainian leaders in Kyiv.
Russia\’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a treaty to annex Crimea from Ukraine, taking the Black Sea peninsula a step closer to joining the Russian Federation.
The Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s legislature, is expected to hold a similar vote on Friday, completing ratification of a treaty that President Vladimir Putin signed with Moscow-backed Crimean leaders Tuesday.
“I am certain the passage of these documents will be a turning point in the fate of the multi-ethnic peoples of Crimea and Russia, who are linked by the close ties of historical solidarity,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Duma after presenting the treaty to the chamber.
“The unification of these peoples in one state will promote the well-being and prosperity and serve the interests of Russia,” Lavrov added.
Earlier Thursday, Lavrov blamed the crisis on the West, without specifically mentioning the United States.
He said Western nations were trying to “preserve their global leadership and display their exceptionalism rather than striving to be guided by international law.”
Crimea, with an ethnic Russian majority, voted to break away from Ukraine and join Russia in a controversial referendum Sunday that the U.S. and European Union have declared illegal.
Meanwhile, Ukraine\’s acting president says the commander of the country\’s navy has been freed after being held by Russian forces and Crimean authorities at the navy\’s headquarters in Crimea.
A statement by Oleksandr Turchynov Thursday said Rear Admiral Sergei Haiduk was released along with an unspecified number of civilian hostages.
The group was detained after the Ukrainian naval base in the Crimean port of Sevastopol was seized Wednesday. Reports indicated pro-Russian militiamen — Crimea\’s so-called "self-defense" forces — were behind the takeover, but Turchynov\’s statement suggests Russian forces were also involved.
Ukrainian border guards stationed in Crimea, now under the control of Russia\’s military, have started redeploying to regions on the mainland, a senior official said on Thursday.
Also about 1,000 civilians have so far left the peninsula, said Pavlo Shysholin, deputy head of the state border guard service, at a news conference.
Plans to evacuate Ukraine\’s outnumbered military personnel from the Crimean peninsula were announced yesterday by the country\’s security chief.
Andriy Parubiy – secretary of Ukraine\’s National Security and Defense Council – said Kyiv will seek United Nations support in turning the peninsula into a demilitarized zone. He also said Ukraine is planning to hold military maneuvers "with our allies," but did not elaborate.
Source: Agencies
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