West readies sanctions riposte after Crimea vote

BRUSSELS (AFP) - The European Union was getting set to unfurl a wave of sanctions against Russia on Sunday, March 16, 2014, after a referendum on the fate of Crimea went ahead despite bitter Western opposition.

The West's riposte will come on early Monday when EU foreign ministers converge in Brussels with visa bans and asset freezes for some of Russia's leading figures likely in the cards.

Similar sanctions by the United States will follow after talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov failed to bridge differences on Friday.

"There will be some sanctions, there will be some response," if the Crimea vote goes through, Mr Kerry on warned Friday, adding that US President Barack Obama has already "made it clear that there will be consequences".

Like the EU, France "will not recognise this pseudo-consultation", President Francois Hollande said on Saturday.

Even Britain, which with Germany has held a more cautious line during the crisis, said the "time had come" for tougher sanctions on Moscow.

But despite all the warning, Crimeans did go to vote on Sunday on breaking away from Ukraine with the earliest results from breakaway authorities showing that 95 per cent voted in favour of joining Russia.

The vote and its widely expected result drew angry reaction from the West with the EU insisting in a statement the vote was "illegal and illegitimate and its outcome will not be recognised".

"Russia's actions are dangerous and destabilising," White House spokesman Jay Carney said, adding that the vote was "contrary to Ukraine's Constitution".

The vote was even more illegitimate "being held under the threat of Russia's occupying forces", French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

But his Italian counterpart Federica Mogherini said diplomatic channels remained open "as long as Russia did not completely annex Crimea".

Before the vote, unnamed diplomatic sources in Brussels told AFP the EU sanctions will target "between 25 and 30 names", adding that members of the Russian government would not be included.

"There will likely be Members of Parliament, members of the security forces... and a senior defence ministry official but not the minister himself," the source said.

Leading government figures would be exempt because "it would be difficult to impose sanctions" on people you are negotiating a solution with, said the source.

Economic sanctions against Russia, the bloc's third biggest trade partner, are for now being set aside with some EU members in the east, and some of Germany's biggest companies, worried about angering the Kremlin.

"Along with a few other EU members, we are among the least interested in sanctions," said Bulgarian Prime Minister Plamen Orecharski, adding that his region would be the "biggest loser" if the measures went through.

In Germany, the chief executive for energy giant EON warned against any "thoughtless damage" to Russian ties.

Germans in general are worried as well. A poll on Thursday in newspaper Handelsblatt said two-thirds of Germans were against sanctions on Russia with 57 per cent putting the blame for the crisis on the anti-Kremlin Ukrainians.

The key worry for those opposed to the measures are gas imports from Russia.

The share of Russian gas in European imports climbed last year, and its share in total consumption has remained relatively stable over the past decade at just under a quarter.

But the EU's Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said Sunday that should Russia interrupt gas and oil supplies, the move would hurt Russian interests in the long run.

"If we notice that gas is becoming a political instrument, against the European Union or against Ukraine or Moldova or Georgia - countries that are important to us... then we would without a doubt rely less on gas in our energy policy," he told Deutschlandfunk public radio.

The EU's 28 leaders will address this thornier issue at a two-day summit on Thursday in which they hope to also voice their support for the fragile pro-European government in Kiev.

Ukraine's Interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said last week he hoped to sign a long-awaited political accord with the EU at that summit.

It was the refusal by ousted president Viktor Yanukovych to sign the EU deal, favouring closer ties to Russia and President Vladimir Putin, that sparked the crisis last December.