US president Barack Obama yesterday called Russia's actions in Ukraine a violation of international law that place Russia on “the wrong side of history” as the State Department prepared to draw up sanctions against Moscow.
Obama said he expected to work with Congress on a package of economic assistance to Ukraine and warned Russia of worldwide isolation if it persisted with its aggression.
“The strong condemnation that Russian has received around the world indicates the degree to which Russia is on the wrong side of history,” he said in brief remarks to reporters during a meeting with the Israeli prime minister in the Oval Office.
“There are two paths that Russia can take at this point. Actions on the ground in Crimea are deeply troubling but what is also true is that over time, this will be a costly proposition for Russia. Now is the time to consider whether they can further their interests with diplomacy as opposed to force.”
He added that if Russia continues on present path, the US will take a “series of steps – economic, diplomatic – that will isolate Russia.”
His comments came hours after state department officials said it was “highly likely” that the US would impose sanctions against Moscow unless Russia changes course and withdraws its troops from Crimea.
European Union foreign ministers held out the threat of sanctions against Russia yesterday if Moscow fails to withdraw its troops from Ukraine, while offering to mediate between the two, alongside other international bodies.
The EU condemned Russia's "acts of aggression" and warned that EU-Russia ties were at risk failing concrete moves by Moscow to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine .
As the 28-nation bloc raced to defuse the crisis, EU president Herman Van Rompuy announced yesterday he was calling a summit of the bloc's heads of state and government on Thursday, in effect setting a time frame for Russia to act.
The announcement of the summit came at the close of five hours of crisis talks by the EU's foreign ministers that ended with a two-page statement warning of sanctions against President Vladimir Putin's threat of military incursion.
"The European Union strongly condemns the clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity by acts of aggression by the Russian armed forces," the ministers said.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has so far ignored US demands for him to pull back forces and he appears unperturbed by the prospect of being politically ostracised by western nations. With military action by the US or its allies out of the question, Washington has concluded that its most effective leverage will be economic.
Ukraine's acting president said Russia's military presence in Crimea was growing, without giving details, and Ukrainian officials said Russia was building up armoured vehicles on its side of a narrow stretch of water closest to Crimea after Putin declared at the weekend he had the right to invade his neighbour to protect Russian interests and citizens.
In Crimea, more Russian troops arrived, surrounding military posts and other facilities and taking effective control of the continent from Ukrainian authorities.
What they planned to do next remained unclear. In one ominous incident, a Ukrainian Defence Ministry spokesman said the commander of Russia's Black Sea fleet boarded a blocked Ukrainian warship and issued a threat.
"Swear allegiance to the new Crimean authorities, or surrender, or face an attack," he said, according to the spokesman, Vladislav Seleznev.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that "if there is no de-escalation before Thursday, these measures will take effect."
The White House was reviewing its entire portfolio of trade and co-operation with Russia, preparing a raft of possible US sanctions targeting senior government and military officials implicated in the invasion of the Ukrainian peninsula.
“At this point we're not just considering sanctions, given the action Russia is taking,” said Jen Psaki, the State Department's press secretary. “It is likely that we will put those in place and we are preparing that right now.”
Officials from the US Treasury and State Department were understood to be drafting possible visa travel bans and asset freezes that would be presented to US president Barack Obama in the coming hours. “We are likely moving down that path as things proceed,” Psaki said. “We are far more forward on this than we were even yesterday.”
The secretary of state, John Kerry, was preparing to fly to Kiev as a gesture of support for Ukraine's new government. He was faced with persuading European allies dependent on their economic relationship with Russia to go further than introducing travel restrictions.
Visiting Kiev on Monday, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, described Russia's incursion into Ukraine as "certainly the biggest crisis in Europe in the 21st century".
Senior US officials dismissed claims that Washington was incapable of exerting influence on the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, but were forced to admit Crimea had been successfully invaded by 6,000 airborne and ground troops in what could be the start of a wider invasion.
"They are flying in reinforcements and they are settling in," said one senior official. Another said: "Russian forces now have complete operational control of the Crimean peninsula."
Privately, one US official said the chances of Russian withdrawal from Crimea are slim. However the Obama administration hopes that a concerted multilateral set of sanctions could change the calculus for Putin, and prevent any further incursion into Ukrainian territory.
Diplomats and foreign policy analysts questioned whether EU states, particularly Germany, would countenance the kinds of far-ranging economic punishment, such as Iran-style trade embargoes or international banking restrictions, that would have the greatest impact on Russia. Part of the problem is that any cessation to trade, particularly in the energy sector, could be as acutely felt in European capitals as Moscow.