Raf Sanchez and Bruno Waterfield – Telegraph.co.uk March 8, 2014
The US bolstered its military forces across Eastern Europe on Thursday and imposed its first sanctions in an effort to force Russia to scale back its intervention in Ukraine.
As European leaders met in Brussels, President Barack Obama denounced plans for a referendum on whether the occupied Crimea region should join Russia as “a violation” of international law.
“We are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders,” he said.
President Obama had a one-hour conversation with his Russian counterpart in an attempt to ease the crisis, but was unable to secure agreement.
The White House said President Obama told President Putin that he believed the situation could be resolved diplomatically in a way which would satisfy Ukraine, Russia and the international community.
The US sent six F-15 fighter jets to join Nato air patrols over the Baltic states in a show of strength intended to reassure its eastern European allies and send a signal to the Kremlin.
A further dozen F-16 fighters and 300 troops will deploy to Poland next week as part of a military training exercise expanded in response to the Russian incursion in Ukraine.
A US destroyer will also be deployed to the Black Sea as part of a routine exercise.
In turn the Russians announced major military drills 280 miles from the Ukraine border.
Col. Oleg Kochetkov spokesman for Russian’s western military district told Ria Novosti, the state-run news agency, that it was the “largest ever exercise” held by air defence units in the area.
The White House on Thursday announced travel restrictions on Russian and Ukrainian officials “directly involved in destabilising Ukraine” and banned them from entering the US. The Obama administration also granted itself powers to freeze assets of those involved in the invasion. “Anybody involved or complicit in activities that threaten the sovereignty, territorial integrity or stability of Ukraine is on notice that they may be targeted for US sanctions,” a White House official said.
Meanwhile, the European Union froze the assets of Viktor Yanukovych, the ousted Ukrainian president, and 17 members of his former government.
At an emergency EU summit on Ukraine in Brussels, David Cameron said: “What has happened with respect to the Crimea is unacceptable and there can be no business as usual with Russia.” While European leaders agreed to suspend trade talks with Russia, they stopped short of imposing visa restrictions or other sanctions.
Despite the European moves against Mr Yanukovych, there is frustration in Washington over the EU’s unwillingness so far to take firm economic action against Russia.
Senator Chris Murphy, the chairman of the Senate’s Europe committee, warned Britain that its willingness to place sanctions would be “a test” of the transatlantic relationship. “There has been a lot hand-wringing about the strength of the transatlantic relationship over the past six months and this is a test of that relationship,” Mr Murphy said.
The escalating US response came hours after Crimea’s regional government announced a referendum on March 16 on whether the peninsula should merge with Russia.
The plan was condemned as illegal by the Ukrainian government in Kiev as well as the US and the EU.
Eastern European neighbours of Russia also expressed exasperation with the slowness of western European powers, which have strong commercial links with Russia, to act firmly against Vladimir Putin.