There may be nothing that the United States and its allies in the European Union can do to force the Russians to leave Crimea at this point. But they can send a loud message that expanding the invasion beyond this Russian-centric region of Ukraine carries a heavy price. A new round of sanctions imposed Monday on prominent Russian officials is a good way to begin to exact that price in the wake of a bogus election over the weekend on Crimean secession.
U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order freezing the assets and banning visas for a number of Russians who are said to be responsible for seizing Crimea. Several top aides of Russian President Vladimir Putin were on the list, which could grow.
Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Eastern Europe this week to meet with leaders in countries such as Poland and Estonia — countries that feel the most vulnerable to Russian aggression. And Obama himself will be in Europe next week, a trip that was previously scheduled and now likely will focus on the crisis in Ukraine.
The sanctions put in place Monday are designed to hit the people responsible for Russia’s outrageous violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. Among those facing sanctions are Vladislav Surkov, an influential adviser of Putin known as the Kremlin’s "gray cardinal." Putin himself escaped sanctions — for now.
"We’re making it clear there are consequences for these actions," Obama said. "The international community will continue to stand together to oppose any violations of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity."
The move by the United States and EU came after a Russian-backed referendum in Crimea that locals there claimed showed 97 per cent favoured breaking away from Ukraine. While there is a large majority of people who consider themselves culturally Russian living in Crimea, the minority Tatars boycotted the vote, knowing as does the rest of the world that it was illegitimate.
A new government in Crimea, meantime, declared itself independent, and Putin recognized the region as a "sovereign and independent state" in defiance of the sanctions.
Europe has not seen such a hostile redrawing of a nation’s border in years. And it sets a worrisome precedent for other nations with restive minorities within their borders. The Russia invasion came after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was deposed in February.
The administration said it was going after three categories of people it believes are responsible for the problems in Ukraine: Russian government officials, those who work in the arms sector and "Russian government cronies," a senior American official told The New York Times.
The administration is smart to take measured steps to isolate Russia in the world community. There may be retaliation — the U.S. and companies that do business with the Russians must be prepared for that. But Obama took the best steps available to him to dissuade Putin and his cronies.
"Further provocations will achieve nothing ... except further isolation," Obama said Monday. Which is as it should be. Obama should be prepared to ratchet up sanctions again if needed.