(ABC NEWS) -- President Obama today warned that a referendum for Ukraine's Crimea region to separate and become part of Russia 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,” Obama said in a hastily announced statement in the White House Briefing Room.
Local government officials in Crimea today set March 16 for the referendum vote.
The president’s comments come after he signed an executive order earlier today imposing sanctions and visa restrictions on “individuals and entities responsible for violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, or for stealing the assets of the Ukrainian people.”
“These decisions continue our efforts to impose a cost on Russia and those responsible for the situation in Crimea. And they also give us the flexibility to adjust our response going forward based on Russia’s actions,” he explained.
“We took these steps in close coordination with our European allies,” he said. “I'm pleased that our international unity is on display at this important moment.”
The president did not specify what actions his administration would take if Russia continues its presence in the neighboring country, but said “the resolve of the United States, and our allies and the international community will remain firm.”
Speaking from Rome, Italy, just after Obama cleared the stage, Secretary of State John Kerry said that European Union countries, though more reluctant to impose penalties that may impact their own economies in addition to Russia’s, are on essentially the same page as the United States on the issue of additional sanctions.
“There may be some differences of opinion about timing or about one particular choice versus another, that's not unusual when you have as many countries working together as we do,” Kerry said, adding, “Europe joins us in absolutely believing that we are all better served by getting back to a normality and a stability that will come through good diplomacy.”
Kerry also shed light on his relationship with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the main conduit between President Vladimir Putin in the talks on Ukraine, calling their interactions “professional.”
“There are moments in the course of a meeting over a year where you may be able to laugh at something, and there are moments where you disagree and disagree very strongly. And we work professionally, both of us, to represent our countries, represent our point of views and try to get the work of diplomacy done,” he said.