Ukrainian supporters of Russia march during a rally in Donetsk. (EPA )
WASHINGTON -- The United States would not recognize a referendum by Crimea to leave Ukraine, and a shift of that region to Russia “is not a done deal,” a top Obama administration official said Sunday.
“If there is a referendum and it votes to move Crimea out of Ukraine and to Russia, we won’t recognize it and most of the world won’t either,” deputy national security advisor Tony Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“Were that to happen, the isolation of Russia, the cost that it would pay, would increase significantly from where they are now,” he said.
Russia has shown no signs of backing down over the Crimea crisis in the face of economic sanctions from the U.S. and its European allies.
The sanctions came after Russian troops seized control of the Crimean peninsula, which has a Russian-speaking majority. Moscow claims that the takeover of key facilities there in late February was the work of local pro-Russian militias.
A referendum organized by pro-Russian members of Crimea’s regional assembly is scheduled for March 16.
Blinken, who was traveling with President Obama this weekend in Florida, said sanctions have taken an economic toll on Russia and that the dispute still could be resolved.
“We've seen Russian markets go down substantially, the ruble go down, and investors sitting on the fence. So Russia’s paying a price for this,” Blinken said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“It's not a done deal,” he said of Crimea seceding from Ukraine to join Russia. “I think the door is clearly open to resolving this diplomatically.”
The White House announced Sunday that Obama would meet with new Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in Washington on Wednesday to “discuss how to find a peaceful resolution to Russia’s ongoing military intervention in Crimea that would respect Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
But former Obama administration Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he did not foresee Russian President Vladimir Putin backing down.
“I do not believe ... that Crimea will slip out of Russia’s hands,” Gates said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Top Republicans reiterated their view that Obama has been weak on foreign policy and that emboldened Putin to move to seize Crimea after Ukraine's government collapsed in the face of massive protests last month.
“A critical reason for Putin’s aggression has been President Obama’s weakness, that Putin fears no retribution,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
Cruz cited the lack of retaliation by the administration for the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and for the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syria in its civil war.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney, appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” echoed those comments.
“I think there's no question but he believes he is weak,” Cheney said of Putin’s view of Obama.
Obama should be doing more to flex U.S. military muscle, Cheney said.
The former vice president under President George W. Bush suggested conducting joint military operations with NATO countries that border Russia, offering equipment and training to Ukraine and reinstating the ballistic missile defense system that was planned for Eastern Europe but scrapped by Obama in 2009.
Russia had opposed the deployment of the system in Poland and the Czech Republic. It was designed to shield European allies from Iranian missiles.
Blinken pushed back against Republican assertions that the administration’s foreign policy encouraged Putin’s actions in Crimea.
“The notion that this is somehow a result of Syria makes very little sense to me. This is about Ukraine,” he said on CNN.
He noted that Russia sent troops into the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2008, when Bush was president.
Gates, who also served in the Bush administration, cited Georgia as well in coming to Obama’s defense.
“Putin invaded Georgia when George W. Bush was president. Nobody ever accused George W. Bush of being weak or unwilling to use military force,” Gates said on Fox. “I think that even if we had launched attacks in Syria, even if we weren't cutting our defense budget, I think Putin saw an opportunity here in Crimea and he has seized it.”
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