MOSCOW, March 6 (RIA Novosti) – The White House said Thursday that it was imposing visa bans and authorizing other sanctions against officials “who are most directly involved in destabilizing Ukraine.”
The statement did not directly identify the officials to be affected.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his US counterpart John Kerry denied the existence of such blacklists when they met in Rome on Thursday. It was their third meeting in two days.
“He [Kerry] assured me that there were no such blacklists, there were only orders, but that doesn’t change anything. It’s still a threat, just like decisions to freeze the activities of the G8 and the Russia-NATO Council,” Lavrov said.
He said such moves only stir up tensions and complicate future diplomatic efforts.
An adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier this week that Russian authorities would consider dumping more than $200 billion of US government bonds in response to possible US sanctions against Russian companies and individuals.
US Department of State spokesperson Jen Psaki confirmed late on Thursday that blacklists of persons who will be denied US entry have already been compiled and said they included “Russians and Ukrainians.”
The move came hours after an announcement by the Crimean parliament that it intended to secede and request annexation by Russia. A popular vote on the issue is to be held in the region on March 16.
The potential sanctions, authorized by an executive order signed by US President Barack Obama, would apply to individuals as well as legal entities, and threaten to further deteriorate the already strained relations between Russia and the US following the occupation of Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking Crimea peninsula by troops apparently under Russian control over the weekend.
Both Obama and Kerry described the planned referendum as illegitimate on Thursday.
"The proposed referendum on the future of Crimea would violate the Ukrainian constitution and violate international law," Obama said. "Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine."
The US secretary of state insisted that Crimea’s future should be decided in a nationwide referendum, not in a regional one.
“Crimea is part of the Ukraine. Crimea is Ukraine. We support the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and the government of Ukraine needs to be involved in any decision [about Crimea’s future status]," Kerry said.
"It's my understanding that the constitution of Ukraine requires an all-Ukraine referendum. Every part of Ukraine, all Ukrainians, would have to be part of a referendum," he continued.
Thousands of troops apparently lacking official insignia but carrying weapons and wearing uniforms used by Russian soldiers have taken control over Ukrainian military bases across Crimea in the past week. Putin has insisted that the masked soldiers are “local militia.”
The US visa bans are the latest in a series of moves by the West to obstruct Russian deployment in Crimea, including suspending bilateral trade meetings, joint military exercises and preparations for a summit of the leaders of the G8 group of powerful democracies that was scheduled for June in the Russian city of Sochi.
The US Defense Department’s newspaper, “Stars & Stripes,” reported Thursday that the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Truxtun was en route to the Black Sea for previously scheduled exercises with Romania and Bulgaria.
Updates with statements by Kerry, Obama, Psaki