By Peter Spiegel in Brussels, Geoff Dyer in Washington and Guy Chazan in Simferopol
The US and its allies moved to punish the Kremlin for its intervention in Ukraine yesterday hours after Crimea’s parliament accelerated plans to secede and join Russia, dramatically raising the stakes in the worst east-west confrontation since the end of the cold war.
In the first concrete steps by the west to penalise Russia the US issued visa bans on Russian officials and the EU agreed to sign key parts of the integration agreement with Kiev that was the touchstone of the crisis.
The EU’s move came after the parliament in the Crimea, which is in effect controlled by Russian military, brought forward to March 16 a referendum to decide whether to be part of Russia or remain in Ukraine, but with greater autonomy.
US President Barack Obama said the referendum “violates the Ukrainian constitution and violates international law”. The vote also appeared to harden the position of wavering European officials, particularly in Berlin, which has shown the most resistance to taking a tough stand towards Moscow.
“We have seen a speeding up of the situation in the Crimea,” said Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. “We had to go further.”
The US visa bans are the first of a series of measures being developed by the Obama administration with possible future penalties including sanctions on Russian banks and asset freezes on its companies.
“We cannot let Russia violate the sovereignty of one of its neighbours with impunity,” said a senior administration official. Washington has already suspended trade and military-to-military ties with Russia.
The EU decided to go slower on sanctions, agreeing only to suspend talks on trade and visa liberalisation. However, EU diplomats said that the mood at the summit had toughened, with leaders agreeing to impose asset freezes and visa bans if Russia does not agree to talks to withdraw from Crimea.
The EU also held out the threat of more sweeping economic and financial sanctions if Russia moves more aggressively in Crimea or eastern Ukraine.
In a sign of the prevailing mood in the Kremlin, a hardline member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle accused the US and a “global financial oligarchy” of organising the toppling of Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovich two weeks ago. Vladimir Yakunin, the head of Russian Railways, argued that the US had for decades been intent on separating Ukraine from Russia. “We are witnessing a huge geopolitical game in which the aim is the destruction of Russia as a geopolitical opponent of the US or of this global financial oligarchy,” he told the Financial Times.
The moves by the US and EU came after diplomats found themselves unable to persuade the Kremlin to begin talks over resolving the crisis. The most consequential measure may be the decision to bring forward elements of the bilateral deal between the EU and Ukraine.
The rejection of the EU treaty by then president Mr Yanukovich touched off months of protests and led to his downfall two weeks ago.