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Crimean call for vote on splitting from Ukraine prompts international opposition

March 6, 2014 at 6:02 PM EST
Pro-Russian volunteers stand guard in front of Crimea's parliament building during a rally in Simferopol Thursday. Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
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GWEN IFILL: The breakup of Ukraine moved a step closer to reality today. The parliament in Crimea scheduled a vote on whether it will stay part of Ukraine or return to Russia. That action drew a swift response, as the U.S. and its European partners announced sanctions against Russia.

Hari Sreenivasan begins our coverage.

HARI SREENIVASAN: At midday, the president discussed the visa restrictions and financial sanctions announced early this morning on Russians behind the Ukraine invasion.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I signed an executive order that authorizes sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine or for stealing the assets of the Ukrainian people.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The president also voiced strong opposition to the Crimean parliament’s vote to leave Ukraine. It announced a March 16 referendum to let its citizens decide on whether to join Russia or remain part of Ukraine.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The proposed referendum on the future of Crimea would violate the Ukrainian constitution and violate international law. Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine. In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That sentiment was echoed in Brussels, as European leaders met to impose the E.U.’s own set of visa bans and a suspension of trade talks.

French President Francois Hollande:

PRESIDENT FRANCOIS HOLLANDE, France (through interpreter): If there is an attempt at splitting, dividing or, even worse, of capturing Crimea, it wouldn’t be in line with international law. Ukraine is Ukraine. It is all of Ukraine.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The pro-Moscow parliament set a March 16 date for the vote, just 10 days off. But the government in Kiev pushed back, blocking the referendum.

Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov:

OLEKSANDR TURCHYNOV, Acting President, Ukraine (through interpreter): It is not a referendum. It is a farce, a fake and a crime against the state which is organized by the Russian Federation’s military.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Meanwhile, the international police agency Interpol said it was reviewing a request by Ukrainian authorities to arrest ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. The red notice called for the former leader to be held on charges, including abuse of power and murder.

Back in Washington, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held the first congressional hearing devoted solely to Ukraine, with talk swirling in some quarter of Capitol Hill of a new Cold War.

Republican Michael McCaul of Texas warned the State Department’s Eric Rubin that the administration’s sanctions may not be enough to stop what he called a Russian act of war.

REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL, R-Texas: Does this administration believe that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is an act of war?

ERIC RUBIN, State Department Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs: Well, Congressman, we have said very clearly that we know what we have seen, which is military aggression, intervention in the affairs of a sovereign country, a violation of legal commitments, a violation of international law. That is what we see. That is what we’re calling it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And, as the U.S. continues to discuss financial support for Ukraine, the House voted today to provide loan guarantees to the new Ukrainian government.

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke of military moves in states closest to Russia.

CHUCK HAGEL, Secretary of Defense: These include stepping up our joint training through our aviation detachment in Poland. And I was advised this morning that that continues to move forward.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Reports from Poland said the U.S. military is sending 12 F-16 fighter jets there for a training exercise, in light of the crisis in Ukraine. And the USS Truxtun, a Navy warship, is scheduled to pass through the Bosphorus tomorrow, en route to the Black Sea. That move is part of a previously scheduled port call in Romania.

On the diplomatic front, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Rome today, and met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. No tangible progress was made toward a resolution. Kerry said further penalties against Russia are an option, but:

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: Our preference is to get back to a normality and get back to a place where the rights of the people of Ukraine will be respected and the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the nation will be respected.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On the ground in Ukraine, the situation remains tense.

PBS Frontline’s James Jones has been there on assignment there. He was recently in the eastern city of Kharkiv and obtained cell phone footage shot by Russian activists. It shows Maidan supporters began dragged out of a government building they were occupying and beaten by pro-Russian Ukrainians and Russian citizens who were bussed in over the border in a show of force, one more sign of the challenges of keeping this country together.