SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — The volatile confrontation over the future of Ukraine took another tense turn Thursday as Russian allies here in Crimea sought annexation by Moscow and the United States imposed its first sanctions on Russian officials involved in the military occupation of the strategic peninsula.
While diplomats raced from meeting to meeting in an effort to end the standoff, European leaders signaled they may join U.S. sanctions and Moscow threatened countermeasures as an already jittery situation was made edgier by the opening of new Russian military drills.
The pro-Russian regional Parliament in Crimea crossed another red line set by the United States and Europe by voting to hold a referendum on whether to secede from Ukraine and become part of Russia. It scheduled the vote for March 16, hoping to win popular approval for the Russian military seizure of the region. Authorities in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, backed by the U.S. and Europe, denounced the move.
Hours after issuing his first punitive actions against specific Russians, President Barack Obama reached out to President Vladimir V. Putin in an hourlong telephone call emphasizing a diplomatic settlement. Obama urged Putin to authorize direct talks with Ukraine’s new pro-Western government, permit the entry of international monitors, and return his forces here to their bases, according to officials at the White House.
“Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine,” Obama said in his only public remarks on the crisis Thursday. “In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.”
European Union leaders issued a statement in Brussels calling an annexation referendum “contrary to the Ukrainian Constitution and therefore illegal.”
The sanctions Obama approved Thursday imposed visa bans on officials and other individuals deemed responsible for undermining Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. The administration would not disclose the names or number of people penalized, but a senior official said privately that it would affect about a dozen people, mostly Russians but some Ukrainians.
Moscow, however, gave no indication of backing down, suggesting that it would reciprocate with measures seizing U.S. property in Russia.
“The U.S. has the right, and we have the right to respond to it,” Vladimir Lukin, a Russian envoy who has worked on the Ukraine crisis, told Interfax the Russian news agency. “But all that is, of course, not making me happy.”
The EU took a step toward more serious measures by suspending talks with Moscow on a wide ranging political-economic pact and on liberalizing visa requirements to make it easier for Russians to travel to Europe. European leaders laid out a three-stage process that would next move to travel bans, asset seizures, and the cancellation of a planned EU-Russia summit and eventually to broader economic measures.