SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — The volatile confrontation over the future of Ukraine took another tense turn Thursday as Russian allies in Crimea sought annexation by Moscow and the United States imposed its first sanctions on Russian officials involved in the military occupation of the strategic peninsula.
While diplomats raced from meeting to meeting in an effort to end the standoff, European leaders signaled they may join US sanctions and Moscow threatened countermeasures as it ordered more military drills.
The pro-Russian regional Parliament in Crimea crossed another red line set by the United States and Europe by voting to hold a referendum on whether to secede from Ukraine and become part of Russia. It scheduled a March 16 referendum to ratify that decision, hoping to win popular approval for the Russian military seizure of the region. Authorities in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, backed by the United States and Europe, denounced the move.
Hours after issuing his first punitive actions against specific Russians, President Obama reached out to President Vladimir Putin in an hourlong telephone call emphasizing a diplomatic settlement. Obama urged Putin to authorize direct talks with Ukraine’s new pro-Western government, permit the entry of international monitors, and return his forces here to their bases, according to officials at the White House.
“Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine,” Obama said in his only public remarks on the crisis. “In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.”
European Union leaders issued a statement in Brussels calling an annexation referendum “contrary to the Ukrainian Constitution and therefore illegal.”
The sanctions Obama approved Thursday imposed visa bans on officials and other individuals deemed responsible for undermining Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. The administration would not disclose the names or number of people penalized, but a senior official said privately that it would affect about a dozen people, mostly Russians but some Ukrainians.
Among those targeted were political figures, policy advisers, and military officers who played a direct role in the Crimea crisis, the official said. Any of them seeking to travel to the United States would be barred, and a few who hold US visas will have them revoked. The list will grow in days ahead as events warrant, officials said.
Obama also signed an executive order laying out a framework for tougher measures such as freezing assets of individuals and institutions.
Moscow, however, gave no indication of backing down, suggesting that it would reciprocate with measures seizing US property in Russia.
The EU took a step toward more serious measures by suspending talks with Moscow on a wide ranging political-economic pact and on liberalizing visa requirements to make it easier for Russians to travel to Europe. European leaders laid out a three-stage process that, absent progress, would next move to travel bans, asset seizures, and the cancellation of a planned EU-Russia summit meeting and eventually to broader economic measures.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who has been reluctant to move quickly toward sanctions, said the EU was looking for concrete evidence that Russia was trying to calm the situation “in the next few days,” but she noted that Thursday’s events in Crimea made the need for action more urgent.
The moves came as Secretary of State John Kerry met for a second day with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, on ways to defuse the Ukraine crisis. A top aide said Kerry urged Lavrov to talk directly with Ukrainian leaders.
“We want to be able to have the dialogue that leads to the de-escalation,” Kerry told reporters.
Kerry also met in Rome with counterparts from Germany, France, Italy, and Britain, and expressed support for a push by Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, to establish a “contact group” seeking a peaceful resolution of the crisis. The group would include Russia, Ukraine, Britain, France, and the United States and serve as a way to bring Moscow and Kiev to the table.
In Crimea, regional leaders said they were confident voters would choose Russia over Ukraine. Pro-Russian demonstrators regarded secession from Ukraine as a foregone conclusion.
“We’re already Russian,” Natasha Malachuk said as she picketed a local security headquarters.
Others objected, particularly the peninsula’s large Crimean Tatar minority. “It’s completely illegitimate,” said Bilal Kuzi-Emin, 25, a Tatar who works as a waiter. “Why don’t we just join Turkey?”