White House spokesman Jay Carney avoided responding directly to a question about France's decision to honor its $1.66 billion contract with Russia for Mistral helicopter carriers and reject pressure from the U.S. and other European leaders to punish Moscow by canceling the deal.
Carney on Monday said he didn't have “a specific reaction” to the news of France's decision and continued to emphasize U.S. efforts to work with European partners on a coordinated approach to “escalating the costs to Russia for its approach to the challenges in Ukraine.”
“You have seen the United States and our partners in Europe and our partners on the G-7 take significant actions to impose sanctions on individuals and entities, and that effort continues even today,” he said.
In making its decision to follow through with the 2011 deal for amphibious assault ships, French officials said canceling the deal would do more harm to Paris than Moscow.
European leaders have been more reluctant that the United States to impose harsher sanctions against Russia because their economies are closely linked with Moscow's, although the EU recently announced plans to place more sanctions on individuals and companies tied to Russia's annexation of Crimea, which took place in March.
News that France will press ahead with its warship deal with Russia came as pro-Russian separatists claimed victory in a hastily organized referendum held Sunday across eastern Ukraine.
The pro-Russian rebels on Monday quickly declared Ukraine's Donetsk region an independent state and asked to join Russia.
Calling the referendum an illegal and transparent attempt to “further division and disorder,” Carney said the U.S. would not recognize it.
He said international media documented episodes of voting with pre-marked ballots, of children voting and the announcement of results before ballots could be counted.
“We're disappointed that the Russian government did not use its influence to forestall these referenda according to President [Vladimir] Putin's call on May 7 for them to be postponed,” he said.
The U.S. has ratcheted up sanctions against Russia for failing to use its influence in eastern Ukraine to encourage pro-separatists forces to lay down their weapons and give up buildings the have been occupying for more than a month.
Most recent U.S. sanctions targeted Putin's inner circle, including close associate Igor Sechin, the president and chairman of Rosneft, Russia's top petroleum country. Owned in part by British Petroleum, Rosneft also has several joint ventures with U.S.-based ExxonMobil.
This report is based in part on wire stories.