- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 4, 2014

President Obama urged Russia on Tuesday to stop “meddling” in Ukraine and withdraw its troops from Crimea, but a defiant Russian President Vladimir Putin said sanctions threatened by the West won’t prevent him from defending his country’s interests with its troubled neighbor.

As the crisis persisted, Mr. Obama overshadowed his own budget rollout to accuse Mr. Putin of concocting a pretext to invade the Crimean peninsula in southern Ukraine.

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Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who met with top Ukrainian officials on a visit to Kiev, insisted that Russia is violating international law.

“President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations,” Mr. Obama said in Washington. “But I don’t think that’s fooling anybody.”

In his first public comments on the showdown, Mr. Putin flatly denied that Russian troops have occupied Crimea and said uniformed troops with no insignia were “local self-defense forces.” He said he would use military force only as a last resort in Ukraine and ordered troops to be pulled back from the border.

President Barack Obama answers a question regarding the ongoing situation in the Ukraine during his visit to Powell Elementary School in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, Tuesday, March 4, 2014, where he went to discuss his fiscal 2015 federal budget proposels. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama answers a question regarding the ongoing situation in the ... more >

After a week of drama in which Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president was ousted and a new government was installed, Mr. Putin said Russia did not want to annex the territory, which includes a strategic naval base that Russia leases on the Black Sea.

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The Russian leader blamed the Obama administration for encouraging an unconstitutional coup in Ukraine “from across the pond in America, as if they were sitting in a laboratory and running experiments on rats, without any understanding of the consequences.”

Speaking to reporters in Moscow, Mr. Putin said he “reserves the right to use all means at our disposal to protect” ethnic Russians in southern and eastern Ukraine if they are in danger. He also belittled Mr. Obama’s warnings of sanctions and said “all threats against Russia are counterproductive and harmful.”

With East-West tensions running high, Russian soldiers in Crimea fired warning shots over the heads of Ukrainian soldiers, and the pro-Moscow leader in Crimea said he was stepping up plans for a referendum on independence. Russian navy ships were reported to have blockaded a strait in the Black Sea separating Ukraine from Russia.

Russia also said it had successfully test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile in a region about 280 miles east of the Ukrainian border. An American official said the U.S. had received proper notification from Russia ahead of the test and that the initial notification pre-dated the crisis in Crimea.

In Kiev, Mr. Kerry arrived with a pledge of $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees and visited the city square that was the site of violent protests that led to the ouster of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych last month. Mr. Kerry met with government officials including the acting president of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov, whom Mr. Putin dismissed as illegitimate.

In comments later to U.S. Embassy staff in Kiev, Mr. Kerry said Ukraine is “witnessing a real throwback to 19th-century behavior — imperialism.”

“At the butt of a gun, we’re going to impose our will and we’re going to deny you the right to be free,” he said of the Russians.

The White House revealed Tuesday evening that Mr. Obama had talked with German Chancellor Angela Merkel —— considered by many to be a key player in any resolution to the crisis — about the next steps and a possible “off-ramp” for Mr. Putin. Germany and many Eastern European countries are heavily dependent on Moscow for natural gas, and Berlin is said to be wary of harsh sanctions over Ukraine.

The White House also said Mr. Obama will not attend the Group of Eight summit in June that Mr. Putin is scheduled to host in Sochi, Russia, if the Ukraine stalemate continues.

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