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.
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.
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.”
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“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.
With critics accusing Mr. Obama of responding spinelessly to the crisis, the administration sought to portray Mr. Putin instead as the one who was desperate and weak. Mr. Kerry drew a distinction between the governments in Kiev and Moscow.
“The contrast really could not be clearer: determined Ukrainians demonstrating strength through unity, and the Russian government out of excuses, hiding its hand behind falsehoods, intimidation and provocations,” Mr. Kerry said. “In the hearts of Ukrainians and the eyes of the world, there is nothing strong about what Russia is doing.”
Mr. Obama, introducing his budget for fiscal 2015 at an elementary school in Washington, went out of his way to challenge the media’s “suggestion somehow that the Russian actions have been clever strategically.”
“I actually think that this has not been a sign of strength but rather is a reflection that countries near Russia have deep concerns and suspicions about this kind of meddling,” Mr. Obama said. “If anything, it will push countries further away from Russia. There is the ability of Ukraine to be a friend of the West and a friend of Russia, as long as none of us are inside of Ukraine trying to meddle and intervene, certainly not militarily, with decisions that properly belong to the Ukrainian people.”
Although Russia has legitimate interests in a neighboring state, Mr. Obama said, “that does not give it the right to use force in exerting influence inside that state.”
World markets that had plunged over the tensions of the weekend bounced back after Mr. Putin’s comments were aired.
Gold, the Japanese yen and U.S. Treasurys — all seen as safe harbors for investors in troubled times — returned some of their gains. Russia’s RTS index, which fell 12 percent Monday rose 6.2 percent Tuesday. In the U.S., the Dow Jones industrial average was up 1.2 percent.
But critics of the administration said Russia’s actions are the clearest sign yet that Mr. Obama has been naive in his dealings with Mr. Putin. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said Tuesday that the Obama administration is guilty of “a fundamental misreading of Vladimir Putin and his intentions.”
“The president said in his debate with Mitt Romney [in 2012] that the Cold War was over 20 years ago,” Mr. McCain said. “Maybe in the president’s eyes, but certainly not in Vladimir Putin’s eyes.”
Speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Mr. McCain said the U.S. needs to have “a fundamental understanding of Putin and what he’s all about,” and he ridiculed Mr. Obama’s plans at the start of his first term for an ill-fated “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations.
“There’s no ‘reset’ with Vladimir Putin,” he said. “There’s no doubt that he will not give up in Crimea. Vladimir Putin does not want a democracy on his borders.”
Mr. McCain said the administration should “announce a fundamental re-evaluation of our relationship with Russia,” move to admit Georgia into the NATO alliance, and “restart” missile defense programs in the Czech Republic and in Poland that the Obama administration had put on hold. He said Mr. Putin is seeking “restoration of the Russian empire.”
The $1 billion from the U.S. is earmarked for energy aid to help the Ukrainian people and to foster fair elections and market assistance.
Russia cut off energy subsidies to Ukraine on Monday. It supplies vital stocks of oil and natural gas for the Ukrainian economy.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the loans “will be aimed at protecting the most vulnerable Ukrainian households” from the impact of needed economic reforms. He said the reforms will help restore financial stability and economic growth in that nation.
“The United States is also moving quickly to deploy a range of other financing and technical expertise, utilizing a whole-of-government approach to support Ukraine,” he said.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, called the U.S. loan guarantees “welcome news” and said his panel will hold a hearing Thursday to press the administration for sanctions against Russia.
“The time to act is now,” Mr. Royce said in a statement. “We must place crippling sanctions on Russian high-ranking officials, state-owned banks and commercial enterprises, and key individuals behind the Russian intervention. Only by forcing Putin to reverse his aggression and by supporting Ukraine in this time of national crisis can we hope to restore peace in the region.”
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.