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Western countries target officials with travel bans and asset freezes over Crimea and warn of tougher measures to come.
BERLIN, Germany — The European Union and United States have enacted visa bans and asset freezes against a number of Russian and Ukrainian officials after Crimea applied to join Russia on Monday.
Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula on Sunday held a referendum in which local officials say almost 97 percent of voters supported seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.
The US and EU say the referendum as well as Russia’s military invasion of Crimea are illegal.
US President Barack Obama imposed sanctions against 11 Russians and Ukrainians said to have played key roles in the referendum, including two leading aides to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
That came shortly after EU foreign ministers enacted similar measures against 21 Russians and Ukrainians whose names are expected to become public on Tuesday. The list may be expanded later in the week at a meeting of European Union leaders on Thursday and Friday, Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek told reporters.
The sanctions don’t target Putin or his closest allies in the Kremlin.
However, EU leaders are expected to define the terms of wider economic sanctions at a summit on Thursday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said.
They may be directed against people close to Putin, Reuters reported.
Judy Dempsey of the Carnegie Europe think-tank says European leaders have “no choice” but to target people in the Russian president’s inner circle.
“No one's quite clear who gave the orders [to send troops to Crimea],” she said in a telephone interview. “But since Putin is the president of Russia and responsible for the armed forces, the EU has no choice but to go very, very close to the top. They may target the assets of the oligarchs as well.”
EU leaders are weighing whether those measures will be tough enough to provide Putin with an incentive to negotiate, but not so draconian to result in a “further escalation that could lead to the division of Europe,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
The stakes are particularly high for Germany, Europe’s political and economic leader.
Russia supplies 40 percent of the country’s natural gas and accounts for some $80 billion in foreign trade. Putin's spurning of diplomatic overtures has forced Chancellor Angela Merkel to effectively reverse decades of German foreign policy focused on engaging rather than isolating Moscow.
Dempsey suggests Putin's outright refusal to negotiate backing down over Crimea has tied Merkel's hands.
“There must be a sense of betrayal, but also disbelief” in Berlin, she says. “They were Russia's most important trading partner and used to be Russia's most important ally within the EU.”
The American list of targeted officials includes Vladislav Surkov, seen as the Kremlin’s former longtime ideologue, and Sergei Glazyev, an economist who advises Putin on Ukraine. It also includes acting Crimean leader Sergei Aksyonov, Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin and Valentina Matviyenko, who heads Russia’s upper house of the parliament.
Obama told Putin on Sunday that the Crimean referendum “violates the Ukrainian constitution and occurred under duress of Russian military intervention.” Speaking by telephone, he told the Russian leader that the vote “would never be recognized by the United States and the international community.”
However, both Obama and European leaders say a diplomatic path for resolving the crisis remains open.
Dempsey says enacting meaningful sanctions against Russia will be no easy task. “If they do put [real economic] sanctions on Russia, this is a huge step for Europe,” she says. “A huge step emotionally, historically, strategically, politically, economically. It's just huge.”
Fears are growing that Moscow wants to also annex parts of Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking east, where Russia has been accused of fomenting separatism and pro-Russian demonstrators have stormed government buildings and killed and injured Ukrainians during clashes with pro-Ukrainian protesters. Moscow has also massed troops on its border with Ukraine.
More from GlobalPost: Why the crisis in Ukraine may be just beginning
Pro-Russian forces have been in control of Crimea since late February, shortly after Ukraine's pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted following months of street protests prompted by his rejection of a planned deal with the EU in favor of closer ties with Moscow.
US Vice President Joseph Biden is expected to travel to Eastern Europe on Monday to meet the leaders of Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, which feel most nervous about Russian assertiveness.
Obama is set to travel to Europe next week on a previously planned trip.
Regardless of the Kremlin’s decisions in the coming days and weeks, Dempsey believes there’s little Western leaders will be able to do to influence events inside Ukraine.
“The future of Ukraine lies with the huge swell of civil society and the pro-democracy movements,” she says. “There's a momentum in Ukraine now that has to be seized, and the civil society is seizing it. They don't want this revolution to get out of their hands.”