The American and Russian presidents spoke on the phone for 90 minutes on Saturday after Russia’s parliament voted unanimously to deploy troops in Ukraine, defying warnings from Western leaders not to intervene.
In his conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. President Barack Obama expressed “his deep concern over Russia’s clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Mr. Obama urged Russia to de-escalate tensions by withdrawing its forces back to bases in Crimea and to refrain from any interference elsewhere in Ukraine.
Saturday’s developments come as Russian troops and their local allies have already largely taken control of Crimea, a restive province of Ukraine that belonged to Russia until 1954 and remains predominantly pro-Russian.
In a statement after the call between Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama, the White House said the U.S. “condemns Russia’s military intervention into Ukrainian territory.”
Mr. Putin told Mr. Obama that Russia reserved the right to intervene in Ukraine to protect its interests and those of the Russian-speaking population there, according to a statement from the Kremlin.
Mr. Putin also spoke of “provocations, crimes by ultranationalist elements, essentially supported by the current authorities in Kiev.” It wasn’t clear what incidents Mr. Putin was referring to.
In Moscow, Russian lawmakers also asked Mr. Putin to recall the country’s ambassador to the U.S. On Friday, Mr. Obama had publicly warned Russia that there would be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.
French President François Hollande also spoke with Mr. Putin Saturday and urged him to avoid any use of force in Ukraine. The French leader held a round of phone calls with Mr. Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that aimed to forge a common position between the allies.
“I deplore today’s decision by Russia on the use of armed forces in Ukraine. This is an unwarranted escalation of tensions,” said European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he is “gravely concerned about the deterioration of the situation” in Ukraine.
In an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Saturday that the regional Crimean government had formally requested Russian military assistance to restore stability to the peninsula. U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power denounced the Russian decision to intervene as “dangerous as it is destabilizing” and said it was taken without legal basis. “The Russian military must stand down,” Ms. Power said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu. U.S. defense officials wouldn’t immediately provide any details of the call and didn’t say whether Mr. Hagel delivered any warning or caution.
In Brussels, ambassadors to the main political decision-making body of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are set to meet Sunday to discuss the crisis in Ukraine. Afterward, the ambassadors will meet with the Ukrainian ambassador to NATO in a format called the NATO-Ukraine Council.
Meanwhile, skirmishes broke out in other regions of Ukraine, raising concern about broader unrest.
The new government in Kiev called an urgent session of its security council Saturday evening and set a special parliamentary meeting for Sunday to discuss the Russian move.
Vitali Klitschko, the former boxing champion who is one of the protest movement’s most prominent leaders, called on parliament to call a “general mobilization” to respond to the threat, apparently referring to Ukraine’s military.
Heavily armed troops, many from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which is based in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, surrounded key facilities across the region in the past day. The newly installed pro-Russian leader of Crimea Saturday formally asked Russia to deploy its troops to help secure the region.
Mr. Putin’s request didn’t specify how many troops might be sent. It said they would be deployed “until the normalization of the social-political situation in the country.”
The request cited the “threat to the lives of Russian citizens” living in Crimea, as well as the personnel of the Black Sea Fleet.
The approval of Mr. Putin’s request doesn’t necessarily mean troops will be dispatched immediately, an official said.
“Having the right (to deploy forces) doesn’t mean immediately, momentarily exercising that. So we will hope that the situation will go according to a better scenario and won’t continue to be exacerbated as it is now,” presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a radio interview.
Mr. Peskov said in the interview that no decision had been made yet on deploying forces to Ukraine or on recall of the ambassador.
Sergei Aksyonov, who was appointed prime minister of Crimea after armed men took over the regional parliament this week, said troops from the Black Sea Fleet are guarding vital facilities in the region and helping with patrols to ensure public order. Mr. Aksyonov, who is pro-Russian, said he was taking command of the peninsula’s police and army.
In the economically important eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, hundreds of pro-Russian protesters massed Saturday in the main square and took over a main government administration building, and raised the Russian flag, according to local residents and news outlets. It was unclear whether the protesters were local residents. The number of protesters was also unclear; Russian and Ukrainian media had wildly different estimates of crowd strength.
The Donetsk city council issued a statement demanding a referendum over whether the mining region with strong ties to Russia should remain part of Ukraine.
By nightfall, the area around the Donetsk main square was quiet. A reporter from Ukrainian national television said that the protesters remained inside the building, drinking tea and planning new pro-Russia protests for Monday.
In Kharkiv, protests erupted Saturday between crowds of mostly young men who have been camped out at different sides of the city’s main square – Europe’s largest city square – for weeks now.
The groups, one which is pro-Kiev and the other which is pro-Moscow, are mostly local youth, some of which are supporters of the local football team, who appear to have more personal grievances with each other rather than deeply held political agendas, according to local residents who know several of the people at the demonstration.
Interfax reported that about 100 people were injured in the disorder Saturday, though that figure couldn’t immediately be confirmed.
Ukraine military bases were quickly surrounded and sealed off Saturday by Russian forces in Crimea as the Kremlin made preparations for a larger-scale landing of troops.
Russian troops were posted near the gates and around the perimeters of several bases near Sevastopol. When asked why they were there, officers replied that they were providing security to the bases, to stop any pro-Russian citizens who might try to take them.
The troops posted around the base had no markings on their uniforms. Their commander, when asked if he could reveal their nationality, said “of course not.” Others admitted they were Russian. Ukrainian officials at the base said the Russians were allowing food and provisions to be brought in.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused the government in Kiev of trying to destabilize the region and directing gunmen to capture Crimea’s ministry of internal affairs building overnight. It said the attack, which couldn’t be verified, was averted with “decisive action.”
Five people who live in the buildings next to the ministry building in Simferopol said everything was peaceful Friday night and they heard nothing. There were no signs of struggle at the building complex.
Vladimir Krashevsky, a top official at the Simferopol-based division of the local berkut, or riot police, said there was no attack by Kiev-allied gunmen on the building, where he gave an impromptu news conference Saturday.
“There was no attack here and there won’t be one,” he said.
The resolution authorizing the use of force in Ukraine cited the threat to Russian citizens there, but officials in Moscow repeatedly suggested that the Kremlin was coming to the defense of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, even if they hold Ukrainian citizenship.
“There is a threat today to the lives and safety of our fellow citizens, of Russian speakers, of ethnic Russians,” Valentina Matvienko, speaker of the upper house of parliament, told reporters after the vote. “We can’t remain indifferent.”
Asked about possible western counter-intervention, she said there was no ground for it. “With all due respect to the United States, where is the U.S. located and where is Russia? This is happening on Russia’s border.”
Alexander Chekalin, a senator, spoke before the vote, saying, “we are one people, speaking one language, following one faith and sharing one history.” The eastern and southern parts of Ukraine have a large number of Russian-speakers who are members of the Orthodox church.
On Friday, armed men surrounded Crimea’s two main airports, took command of its state television network and set up checkpoints along the key roads connecting the peninsula to the rest of Ukraine. On Saturday, professional military men in unmarked green camouflage uniforms appeared outside the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol.
Ukrainian officials said the well-equipped men – many of whom carried sophisticated automatic weapons – were Russian soldiers.
The leader of the Crimean Tatars, the ethnic minority that accounts for 12% of Crimea and supports the new government in Kiev, sought to dispel the notion that the seizure of government buildings in Crimea had grown out of a citizen uprising.
“These buildings were seized by specially trained people acting on military orders,” said Refat Chubarov, the Tatar leader and deputy in the parliament, at a news conference Saturday.
Ukraine’s new prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, called the continuing militarization in Crimea a provocation intended to draw in Ukraine militarily. He demanded Russian forces return to their base in Sevastopol.
“The presence of Russian troops is nothing more than a violation of the agreement for the Black Sea Fleet to be in Ukraine,” Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted him as saying. “We urge the Russian government to withdraw their troops and return them to their base.”
Ukraine mobilized on Sunday for war and called up its reserves, after Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to invade in the biggest confrontation between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.
Ukraine’s security council ordered the general staff to immediately put all armed forces on highest alert, the council’s secretary Andriy Parubiy announced. The Defense Ministry was ordered to conduct the call-up, potentially of all men up to 40 in a country that still has universal male conscription.
Russian forces who have already bloodlessly seized Crimea – an isolated Black Sea peninsula where most of the population are ethnic Russian and Moscow has a naval base – tried to disarm the small Ukrainian contingents there on Sunday. Some Ukrainian commanders refused to give up weapons and bases were surrounded.
Of potentially even greater concern are eastern swathes of the country, where most of the ethnic Ukrainians speak Russian as a native language. Those areas saw violent protests on Saturday, with pro-Moscow demonstrators hoisting flags at government buildings and calling for Russia to defend them.
Putin’s declaration that he has the right to invade his neighbor – for which he quickly received the unanimous approval of his parliament – brought the prospect of war to a country of 46 million people on the ramparts of central Europe.
As the situation between Russia and Ukraine develops, you’d expect our president to be keeping up-to-date on every single detail coming out. But remember, this is Obama. He didn’t attend national security briefings while our ambassador was in danger in Benghazi.
According to tweets from White House press correspondents, Obama skipped a key national security meeting on the Ukraine situation earlier today. Absolutely unreal.
Where was he? Golfing?
The Weekly Standard writes:
A White House official emailed some reporters to say that President Obama’s team met today to discuss the ongoing situation on Ukraine. It appears President Obama did not attend.
“The President’s national security team met today to receive an update on the situation in Ukraine and discuss potential policy options. We will provide further updates later this afternoon,” reads the full statement.
According to Time magazine’s Zeke Miller, Obama skipped the meeting. “Obama did not attend the meeting, but WH official says he has been briefed by Susan Rice and his national security team,” says Miller.
Instead of attending a meeting with his national security team, Susan Rice, the Obama advisor who repeatedly said that Benghazi had everything to do with a YouTube video, is briefing the president on crucial national security matters. What could possibly go wrong?
Did JFK skip national security meetings during the Cuban Missile Crisis? No. Even Jimmy Carter was intimately involved in every aspect of the negotiations and operations during the Iran Hostage Crisis. Barack Obama is a new low for the office of the president. Unbelievable.
On February 28th, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) reacted to President Obama’s “hastily arranged” speech against Russian military intervention in the Ukraine by saying the U.S. needs to suspend “Russian membership in the Group of Eight (G8),” and we need to do so “immediately.”
He made it clear that mere words and “the President’s vague threats” are not enough because mere “appeals to international norms” hold no sway over Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Moreoever, Cruz said international norms mean even less than usual to Putin “when they run counter to his goal of re-establishing Soviet-style regional hegemony over unfortunate states like Georgia and Ukraine who have the temerity to want a more free, prosperous future for their people.”
Cruz said the U.S. must suspend Russian membership in the G8. If that doesn’t give Putin pause, he added, suspensions from “the World Trade Organization and even the United Nations Security Council” should be pursued.
Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov has urged Russia to stop “provocations” in Crimea and to pull back military forces.
“They are provoking us into a military conflict. According to our intelligence, they are trying to implement the scenario that is very similar to Abkhazia,” he said, referring to Russia’s intervention in Georgia over breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have large ethnic Russian populations.
“I’m personally addressing President Putin and demanding that he stops provocations immediately and calls back the troops from the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and works only according to the signed treaties,” added Turchynov in televised comments.
Euronews saw several Russian armoured personnel carriers (APCs) parked in an area where pro-Russian self defence groups set up a roadblock.
We tried to speak to some of the men in military uniform, but they were reluctant to talk to us in detail. They were friendly and they told us that that was a drill.
Euronews correspondent Sergio Cantone said: “Finally here are the Russian APCs with number plates and identification signs. They are on the road from Sevastopol to Simfereopol. But it is not clear where are they heading.”
For much of his time in office, President Obama has been accused by a mix of conservative hawks and liberal interventionists of overseeing a dangerous retreat from the world at a time when American influence is needed most.
The once-hopeful Arab Spring has staggered into civil war and military coup. China is stepping up territorial claims in the waters off East Asia. Longtime allies in Europe and in the Persian Gulf are worried by the inconsistency of a president who came to office promising the end of the United States’ post-Sept. 11 wars.
Now Ukraine has emerged as a test of Obama’s argument that, far from weakening American power, he has enhanced it through smarter diplomacy, stronger alliances and a realism untainted by the ideology that guided his predecessor.
It will be a hard argument for him to make, analysts say.
A president who has made clear to the American public that the “tide of war is receding” has also made clear to foreign leaders, including opportunists in Russia, that he has no appetite for a new one. What is left is a vacuum once filled, at least in part, by the possibility of American force.
“If you are effectively taking the stick option off the table, then what are you left with?” said Andrew C. Kuchins, who heads the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I don’t think that Obama and his people really understand how others in the world are viewing his policies.”
Rarely has a threat from a U.S. president been dismissed as quickly – and comprehensively – as Obama’s warning Friday night to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The former community organizer and the former Cold Warrior share the barest of common interests, and their relationship has been defined far more by the vastly different ways they see everything from gay rights to history’s legacy.
Obama called Putin on Saturday and expressed “deep concern over Russia’s clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is a breach of international law,” the White House said.
From a White House podium late Friday, Obama told the Russian government that “there will be costs” for any military foray into Ukraine, including the semiautonomous region of Crimea, a strategically important peninsula on the Black Sea.
Within hours, Putin asked the Russian parliament for approval to send forces into Ukraine. The vote endorsing his request was unanimous, Obama’s warning drowned out by lawmakers’ rousing rendition of Russia’s national anthem at the end of the session. Russian troops now control the Crimean Peninsula.
There are rarely good – or obvious – options in such a crisis. But the position Obama is in, confronting a brazenly defiant Russia and with few ways to meaningfully enforce his threat, has been years in the making. It is the product of his record in office and of the way he understands the period in which he is governing, at home and abroad.
At the core of his quandary is the question that has arisen in White House debates over the Afghan withdrawal, the intervention in Libya and the conflict in Syria – how to end more than a dozen years of American war and maintain a credible military threat to protect U.S. interests.
The signal Obama has sent – popular among his domestic political base, unsettling at times to U.S. allies – has been one of deep reluctance to use the heavily burdened American military, even when doing so would meet the criteria he has laid out. He did so most notably in the aftermath of the U.S.-led intervention in Libya nearly three years ago.
But Obama’s rejection of U.S. military involvement in Syria’s civil war, in which 140,000 people have died since he first called on President Bashar al-Assad to step down, is the leading example of his second term. So, too, is the Pentagon budget proposal outlined this past week that would cut the size of the army to pre-2001 levels.
Inside the West Wing, there are two certainties that color any debate over intervention: that the country is exhausted by war and that the end of the longest of its post-Sept. 11 conflicts is less than a year away. Together they present a high bar for the use of military force.
Ukraine has challenged administration officials – and Obama’s assessment of the world – again.
At a North American summit meeting in Mexico last month, Obama said, “Our approach as the United States is not to see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia.”
But Putin’s quick move to a war footing suggests a different view – one in which, particularly in Russia’s back yard, the Cold War rivalry Putin was raised on is thriving.
The Russian president has made restoring his country’s international prestige the overarching goal of his foreign policy, and he has embraced military force as the means to do so.
As Russia’s prime minister in the late summer of 2008, he was considered the chief proponent of Russia’s military advance into Georgia, another former Soviet republic with a segment of the population nostalgic for Russian rule.
Obama, by contrast, made clear that a new emphasis on American values, after what were perceived as the excesses of the George W. Bush administration, would be his approach to rehabilitating U.S. stature overseas.
Those two outlooks have clashed repeatedly – in big and small ways – over the years.
Obama took office with a different Russian as president, Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s choice to succeed him in 2008.
Medvedev, like Obama, was a lawyer by training, and also like Obama he did not believe the Cold War rivalry between the two countries should define today’s relationship.
The Obama administration began the “reset” with Russia – a policy that, in essence, sought to emphasize areas such as nuclear nonproliferation, counterterrorism, trade and Iran’s nuclear program as shared interests worth cooperation.
But despite some successes, including a new arms-control treaty, the reset never quite reduced the rivalry. When Putin returned to office in 2012, so, too, did an outlook fundamentally at odds with Obama’s.
Just months after his election, Putin declined to attend the Group of Eight meeting at Camp David, serving an early public warning to Obama that partnership was not a top priority.
At a G-8 meeting the following year in Northern Ireland, Obama and Putin met and made no headway toward resolving differences over Assad’s leadership of Syria. The two exchanged an awkward back-and-forth over Putin’s passion for martial arts before the Russian leader summed up the meeting: “Our opinions do not coincide,” he said.
A few months later, Putin granted asylum to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor whose disclosure of the country’s vast eavesdropping program severely complicated U.S. diplomacy. Obama had asked for Snowden’s return.
In response, Obama canceled a scheduled meeting in Moscow with Putin after the Group of 20 meeting in St. Petersburg last summer. The two met instead on the summit’s sidelines, again failing to resolve differences over Syria.
It was Obama’s threat of a military strike, after the Syrian government’s second chemical attack crossed what Obama had called a “red line,” that prompted Putin to pressure Assad into concessions. The result was an agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, a process that is proceeding haltingly.
Since then, though, the relationship has again foundered on issues that expose the vastly different ways the two leaders see the world and their own political interests.
After Russia’s legislature passed anti-gay legislation, Obama included openly gay former athletes in the U.S. delegation to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
New barbarities in Syria’s civil war – and the near-collapse of a nascent peace process – have drawn sharper criticism from U.S. officials of Putin, who is continuing to arm Assad’s forces.
How Obama intends to prevent a Putin military push into Ukraine is complicated by the fact that, whatever action he takes, he does not want to jeopardize Russian cooperation on rolling back Iran’s nuclear program or completing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
Economic sanctions are a possibility. But that decision is largely in the hands of the European Union, given that its economic ties to Russia, particularly as a source of energy, are far greater than those of the United States.
The most immediate threat that has surfaced: Obama could skip the G-8 meeting scheduled for June in Sochi, a day’s drive from Crimea.
“If you want to take a symbolic step and deploy U.S. Navy ships closer to Crimea, that would, I think, make a difference in Russia’s calculations,” Kuchins said. “The problem with that is, are we really credible? Would we really risk a military conflict with Russia over Crimea-Ukraine? That’s the fundamental question in Washington and in Brussels we need to be asking ourselves.”