"Treat him for what he is. That does not mean the ignition of the Cold War. But it does mean treating him in the way that we understand an individual who believes in restoring the old Russian empire," the Arizona Republican said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."
|Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country.|
The Obama administration has said it will not recognize the results of the referendum. For his part, McCain called the effort "bogus."
Crimea's ethnic Russian majority population is expected to vote in favor of annexation.
The situation in the Ukraine has led to an escalation of tensions between the United States and Russia.
McCain urged consideration of economic sanctions for Russia, as well as some sort of long-term military commitment -- though he stopped short of advocating sending troops into the conflict.
"There's no contemplation of U.S. military action, but there's a whole lot of things the United States of America can do," he said.
McCain, echoing calls of Congressional Republicans and some Democrats, also pushed for the U.S. to expedite approval of natural gas exports. He said that trade would help Ukraine and others in the region wrest themselves from Russia's control over energy supplies.
"We should be using that, and that's a long-term strategy we should be figuring out right now," McCain said.
The Energy Department must determine exports to countries that lack free-trade status with the U.S. are in the public interest. Many in Congress say the pace is too slow -- it has approved six projects, with 24 pending.
Even if the administration picked up the pace, just one export terminal will be ready before 2017. On top of that, most U.S. gas is destined for Asia, where the price spread is greatest, and the Ukraine has no way to convert tanker-carried natural gas into its usable form.
But McCain and others have suggested expediting exports would send a signal to Putin that he could not use his control of energy supplies as a diplomatic stick for much longer.
"Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country," McCain said.