The Trump administration on Wednesday placed sanctions on leading Russian-backed officials in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that was part of Ukraine before Russia claimed it in 2014 and set off the biggest East-West confrontation since the Cold War.
The sanctions targeting seven officials and a railway company connecting Russia with Crimea were handed down by the Treasury Department two days before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to meet with officials in Ukraine. The United States has never recognized Moscow’s seizure of Crimea and still considers it a part of Ukraine.
Most of the officials facing sanctions represent the port city of Sevastopol, which had been home to Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet since the time of Catherine the Great in 1783 until the demise of the Soviet Union. Many residents are retired Russian navy officers who settled and stayed even when it became part of Ukraine. Many never learned to speak Ukrainian, and Crimeans voted to become part of Russia in 2014.
Ukraine remains in a war with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country. Its need for military aid has become the focus of impeachment proceedings against President Trump, who is accused of withholding military aid unless Ukraine agreed to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden, and his son Hunter.
The European Union imposed sanctions on many of the same Crimean officials this week as punishment for their involvement in local Russian local elections held in Crimea in September. The E.U. considers Crimea to be illegally annexed.
Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin said the U.S. action “reiterates our unwavering support for restoring free and fair democratic political processes in Crimea.”
The action gave a subtle cold shoulder to the Crimean officials, preceding each one’s title with “so-called.” Among them was Yuri Gotsanyuk, the “so-called Prime Minister of the so-called Republic of Crimea.” Other officials facing sanctions include the governor, the chairman of the legislative assembly and several members of the Sevastopol election commission.
Also blacklisted is the Grand Service Express, a Moscow-based private railroad that offers passenger service between Crimea and the Russian mainland over what the Treasury Department called the Kerch Strait Bridge. Russians have called it the Crimean Bridge since construction was completed last month, another marker of Russian sovereignty.
Pompeo is expected to be in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on Friday for meetings with President Volodymyr Zelensky and other officials. His visit comes at an awkward moment. Last week, after an interview with an NPR radio host, Pompeo called the journalist into his private chambers and berated her in a conversation he has said he thought was off the record. The journalist, Mary Louise Kelly, said she never agreed to keep their talk private and reported that he asked, using a strong profanity, “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?”
Trump has praised Pompeo for confronting the NPR reporter, but former diplomats and many State Department employees consider Pompeo’s tirade against Kelly undiplomatic and appalling. The State Department has since barred another NPR reporter from traveling with Pompeo this week.
According to a report filed by reporters traveling with Pompeo, when he was asked about the exchange, he replied, “And of course the American people care about the people of Ukraine.”