SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine (USATODAY.com) - The West scrambled to impose sanctions Thursday on Russia after pro-Moscow figures in Crimea ordered a referendum that could make the Ukraine territory part of Russia.
The White House issued visa travel restrictions against an unidentified number of people and entities accused of threatening Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial borders.
President Obama signed an executive order authorizing the Treasury Department to levy financial sanctions against "individuals and entities" deemed responsible for Russia's military takeover in Crimea.
The European Union suspended talks with Russia on a wide-ranging economic pact and on a visa deal. EU leaders met in an emergency summit Thursday but was divided over imposing sanctions that could prompt economic retaliation from Moscow, which supplies the European Union with oil and gas.
"Not everyone will be satisfied with the decision, but I should say that we did much more together than one could have expected several hours ago," said Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of the first U.S. aid bill for Ukraine's fledgling government, a $1 billion loan guarantee. The House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously condemned Russia's takeover of Ukraine's Crimea.
Obama said the United States and its allies are "united in our determination to oppose actions in violation of international law." He also stood up for the new government in Kiev that Russia calls illegitimate.
"Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine," he said.
But the political leaders who has deposed officials in Crimea with the support of Russia were adamant that they would hold a referendum March 16 to either split from Ukraine or demand greater autonomy over the ouster of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovch.
"This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev," said Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of the local Crimean legislature. "We will decide our future ourselves."
The national parliament of Ukraine, seated in Kiev, reacted with outrage at the referendum and accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of engineering it to take over officially what he has already taken militarily.
"This so-called referendum has no legal grounds at all," said Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Ukraine's president.
Yatsenyuk called on Russia to withdraw its troops and "start real talks and negotiations for the peaceful solution."
"Crimea was, is, and will be, an integral part of Ukraine," he told reporters in Brussels, where he was meeting with European diplomats seeking a negotiated end to the crisis.
Many in Ukraine fear the referendum is designed as a pretext toward secession and the next step would be annexation by Russia, permitting the Russian military to establish a permanent presence in Crimea. Thousands of Russian troops are blocking access to Crimea.
Putin claims Yanukovych, who was granted asylum in Russia, is the legitimate president. But Ukraine has charged him with murder in the shooting deaths of more than 80 protesters. Interpol said it received a request Thursday for his arrest from Kiev.
Putin's political supporters in Moscow said Crimea has the right to secede.
"This is the right thing to do," said Ivan Melknikov, first vice speaker of the Russian Duma, or parliament.
Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, warned that "every day, particularly with moves like that made today in Crimea, the risk of military escalation increases."
The parliament in Crimea already enjoys a degree of autonomy under current Ukrainian law but has no right to hold a vote on succession under the constitution. Much of the politics in Crimea are being driven by pro-Russian figures and armed militias that have taken over offices, airfields and bases.
Downtown Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, was quiet as darkness fell. Residents waited for buses and hustled home after work, walking past Cossack militiamen wearing fatigues and their traditional black and red hats near the statue of Lenin in the building's square.
Anatoliy Boyko, 50, a security guard at a neighborhood supermarket in Sevastopol, said he would certainly vote to join the Russian Federation.
"Sevastopol was Russia, Sevastopol is Russia now and Sevastopol will always be Russia forever," Boyko said, speaking in fluent English honed from 25 years as a merchant sailor. "Most of the people around here have the same opinion."
Sevastopol is home to both Russia and Ukraine's Black Sea fleets. Ukraine's navy is in a standoff with Russian vessels blockading two Ukrainian warships in Sevastopol Bay.
"We are trying at all costs to prevent bloodshed and civilian casualties," Ukraine's acting naval commander Serhiy Hayduk said according to Interfax news agency.
Russia pulled the anti-submarine vessel Ochakov out of a naval junkyard and sunk it near the city of Novo-Ozerne to impede the Ukraine navy, said Kiev.
"We are so scared," said a middle-aged grocer in Novo-Ozerne who identified herself only as Lyudmila out of fear of retaliation.