US announces sanctions against Russian officials - New York News

US announces sanctions against Russian officials

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NEW YORK (MYFOXNY) -

By NEDRA PICKLER and MATTHEW LEE Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama on Monday imposed sanctions against Russian officials, including advisers to President Vladimir Putin, for their support of Crimea's vote to secede from Ukraine.

The White House also announced that it is working to identify and target the assets of other individuals who aren't government officials but are supporting them. The Treasury Department also is imposing sanctions on four Ukrainians, including former President Viktor Yanukovych, a former top Ukrainian presidential adviser and two Crimea-based separatist leaders.

"Today's actions send a strong message to the Russian government that there are consequences for their actions that violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including their actions supporting the illegal referendum for Crimean separation," the White House said in a statement.

"Today's actions also serve as notice to Russia that unless it abides by its international obligations and returns its military forces to their original bases and respects Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, the United States is prepared to take additional steps to impose further political and economic costs," the statement said.

The U.S. announcement came shortly after the European Union announced travel bans and asset freezes on 21 people they have linked to the unrest in Crimea.

The sanctions were expected after residents in Crimea voted overwhelmingly Sunday in favor of the split. Crimea's parliament on Monday declared the region an independent state.

The United States, European Union and others say the action violates the Ukrainian constitution and international law and took place in the strategic peninsula under duress of Russian military intervention. Putin maintained that the vote was legal and consistent with the right of self-determination, according to the Kremlin.

Obama's order targets:

-- Vladislav Surkov, a Putin aide

-- Sergey Glazyev, a Putin adviser

-- Leonid Slutsky, a state Duma deputy

-- Andrei Klishas, member of the Council of Federation of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation

-- Valentina Matviyenko, head of the Federation Council

-- Dmitry Rogozin, deputy prime minister of the Russian Federation.

-- Yelena Mizulina, a state Duma deputy

Fireworks exploded and Russian flags fluttered on Sunday above jubilant crowds after the vote, which election officials said stood at 95 percent with more than half of the ballots counted.

The vote offered voters on the strategic Black Sea peninsula the choice of seeking annexation by Russia or remaining in Ukraine with greater autonomy.

Opponents of secession appeared to largely stay away Sunday, denouncing the vote as a cynical power play/land grab by Russia. But turnout was reported to be well above the 50 percent that would make the referendum binding -- and secession was expected to be approved overwhelmingly.

"Today is an important day for all of Crimea, Ukraine and Russia," voter Manita Meshchina said in Sevastopol, the Crimean port where Russia now leases a major naval base from Ukraine for $98 million a year.

More than 70 people surged into a polling station in the city within the first 15 minutes of voting Sunday.

"Today is a holiday!" said 66-year-old Vera Sverkunova, breaking into a patriotic war song: "I want to go home to Russia. It's been so long since I've seen my mama."

The referendum comes two weeks after Russian-led forces seized control of Crimea. Locals say they fear the new Ukrainian government that took over when President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia last month will oppress them.

"It's like they're crazy Texans in western Ukraine. Imagine if the Texans suddenly took over power (in Washington) and told everyone they should speak Texan," said Ilya Khlebanov, a voter in the Crimean capital of Simferopol.

Ukraine's new prime minister insisted again Sunday that neither Ukraine nor the West will recognize the referendum, which he said was conducted at gunpoint.

"Now, on the territory of the autonomous republic of Crimea under the stage direction of the Russian Federation, a circus performance is underway: the so-called referendum," Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a government meeting. "Also taking part in the performance are 21,000 Russian troops, who with their guns are trying to prove the legality of the referendum."

Russia raised the stakes Saturday when its forces, backed by helicopter gunships and armored vehicles, took control of the Ukrainian village of Strilkove and a key natural gas distribution plant nearby-- the first Russian military move into Ukraine beyond the Crimean peninsula of 2 million people. The Russian forces later returned the village but kept control of the gas plant.

On Sunday, Ukrainian soldiers were digging trenches and erecting barricades between the village and the gas plant.

"We will not let them advance further into Ukrainian territory," said Serhiy Kuz, commander of a Ukrainian paratrooper battalion.

Despite the sanctions threat, Russian President Vladimir Putin has vigorously resisted calls to pull back in Crimea. At the United Nations on Saturday, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution declaring the referendum illegal. China, its ally, abstained and 13 of the 15 other nations on the council voted in favor -- a signal of Moscow's isolation.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Putin by phone Sunday, proposing that an international observer mission in Ukraine be expanded quickly as tensions rise in the east. Her spokesman said she also condemned the Russian seizure of the gas plant.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also spoke and agreed to support constitutional reforms in Ukraine that could ease the tensions, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

Ukraine's Regional Policy Minister Volodymyr Groisman told The Associated Press that the new government was already working on giving towns and regions more autonomy but said there were no plans to turn Ukraine into a federation.

In Donetsk, one of the main cities in eastern Ukraine, pro-Russia demonstrators called Sunday for a referendum similar to the one in Crimea and some of them stormed the prosecutor-general's office.

In Sevastopol, speakers blared the city anthem up and down the streets, giving off a block-party feeling. But the military threat was not far away -- a Russian naval warship still blocked the port's outlet to the Black Sea, trapping Ukrainian boats.

At a polling station inside a historic school, tears came to Vladimir Lozovoy, a 75-year-old retired Soviet naval officer, as he talked about his vote.

"I want to cry. I have finally returned to my motherland. It is an incredible feeling. This is the thing I have been waiting for for 23 years," he said.

But Crimea's large Muslim Tatar minority -- whose families had been forcibly removed from their homeland and sent to Central Asia during Soviet times -- remained defiant.

The Crimea referendum "is a clown show, a circus," Tatar activist Refat Chubarov said on Crimea's Tatar television station. "This is a tragedy, an illegitimate government with armed forces from another country."

The fate of Ukrainian soldiers trapped in their Crimean bases by pro-Russian forces was still uncertain. Crimea's pro-Russian authorities have said if those soldiers don't surrender after Sunday's vote, they will be considered "illegal."

"This is our land and we're not going anywhere from this land," Ukraine's acting defense minister, Igor Tenyuk, was quoted as saying Sunday by the Interfax news agency.

But Tenyuk later said an agreement had been reached with Russia that its forces would not block Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea through Friday. It was not clear exactly what that meant.

On the streets of Simferopol, blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags were nowhere to seen but red, white and blue Russian and Crimean flags fluttered in abundance.

Ethnic Ukrainians interviewed outside the Ukrainian Orthodox cathedral of Vladimir and Olga said they refused to take part in the referendum, calling it an illegal charade stage-managed by Moscow. Some said they were scared of the potential for widespread discrimination and harassment in the coming weeks, similar to what happened in parts of nearby Georgia, another former Soviet republic, after its 2008 war with Russia.

"We're just not going to play these separatist games," said Yevgen Sukhodolsky, a 41-year-old prosecutor from Saki, a town outside Simferopol. "Putin is the fascist. The Russian government is fascist."

Vasyl Ovcharuk, a retired gas pipe layer who worked at Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, predicted dark days ahead for Crimea.

"This will end up in military action, in which peaceful people will suffer. And that means everybody. Shells and bullets are blind," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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