Secretary of State John Kerry at Thursday's congressional hearing on a Ukraine sanctions bill

Secretary of State John Kerry at Thursday's congressional hearing on a Ukraine sanctions bill Charles Dharapak/AP

Kerry Warns Crimea Not to Hold Vote on Sunday

Secretary of State John Kerry says the March 16 referendum has ‘no justification, no legality.’ By Ben Watson

The U.S. and Europe will not stand by as passive observers should the current pro-Russian Crimean parliament proceed with a referendum vote on Sunday to break away from Ukraine and join Russia, Secretary of State John Kerry told lawmakers Thursday.

“There will be a response of some kind to the referendum itself,” Kerry said during a hearing of the Senate Appropriation Committee's State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs subcommittee. “There will be a very serious series of steps on Monday in Europe and here with respect to the options that are available to us. Now, our choice is not to be put in the position of having to do that.”

At a later hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Kerry was asked what it would take for U.S. troops to get involved. “I draw that line [by asking] do we believe a nuclear war is worth fighting over Crimea. That’d be a very tough question to resolve. I think most Americans would resolve it fairly fast. But on the other hand, most Americans would also agree very quickly nations should not behave the way Russia has and they ought to pay a price if they choose to.”

Kerry is scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday in London for what some are calling a “last-ditch” effort to avoid a further escalation of tensions in the region.

President Barack Obama has canceled trade talks and discussions on U.S.-Russian military cooperation and issued an executive order last week banning visas for nearly a dozen Russian and Ukrainian citizens the administration sees as undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty.

The immediate goal for these low-level sanctions “is to have Russia join in respecting international law,” Kerry said. “There is no justification, no legality to this referendum that is taking place. It violates the U.N. charter. It violates the constitution of Ukraine. And I don't think anybody can believe that a hastily put together, rushed referendum taking place under the imprint of 20,000-plus troops and all that has happened without debate, without opportunity is a genuine referendum.”

Kerry met with Kiev’s interim leadership last week to offer $1 billion U.S. loan guarantee. He described walking beside lampposts riddled with bullet holes, numerous improvised barricades and “remarkable memorials that had grown up spontaneously to the people who were killed” in Kiev during February’s protests. That unrest led to pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing the country on Feb. 22.

The latest U.S. estimates put the number of Russian troops in Crimea close to 20,000. That by itself is not at issue, Kerry said, since Russia has a basing agreement with Ukraine to stage as many as 25,000 troops there. But, he said, “There’s a requirement that they not interfere in the sovereignty of Ukraine from that base. And obviously what they’ve done in the last days, they have done that.”

Given Crimea’s recent history — a Russian region gifted to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 — Kerry told a later hearing Thursday with the House Foreign Affairs Committee that “there’s no doubt some citizens in Crimea feel some ties to Russia.” But, he added, “You can’t consider an election in the face of troops, and hastily put together in a few weeks without any debate — and also contrary to international law and contrary to the constitution of Ukraine — as a free and fair election.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said Thursday at least 10,000 of its soldiers — including tanks, helicopters and 1,500 paratroopers — were involved in “intensive training” in the Belgorod, Kursk and Rostov regions, just across Ukraine’s eastern border.

On Wednesday, the Pentagon announced it will be sending an additional 12 F-16 fighter jets and 300 personnel to Poland to supplement NATO’s air policing mission in the Baltics. Last week, the U.S. sent six F-15C Eagles and more than 60 airmen stationed in England to Lithuania for the same reason. "What we are doing is reassuring our allies that we are there for them," said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.