WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, strongly disagree over what’s at stake in the Ukraine crisis.
Those differing views were made clear in a 90-minute phone call and could make it difficult to find a resolution to the crisis in Ukraine.
In the Saturday call, Obama called Russia’s actions “a clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty” and called for Russia to pull its forces back to bases in Ukraine’s Crimean region and de-escalate tensions. President Putin responded that the turmoil in Ukraine posed real threats to the life and health of Russian citizens living in Ukraine and that Russia has the right to protect them.
Russian troops took over Crimea as the Russian parliament on Saturday granted Putin authority to use the military to protect Russian interests in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s newly installed government was powerless to react to the swarm of Russian troops.
The White House said in a statement that the Russian action was “a breach of international law.”
Hours earlier, Obama’s national security team huddled at the White House to get updates on the situation and discuss policy options. Obama did not participate. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry participated by videoconference.
“The United States condemns the Russian Federation’s invasion and occupation of Ukrainian territory,” said Kerry, who voiced his support for Ukraine in a Saturday morning phone call with Ukraine’s President Oleksandr Turchynov.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke by telephone with his Russian counterpart and stressed that, “without a change on the ground,” Russia risks further instability in the region, isolation in the international community and an escalation that would threaten European and international security, the Pentagon said.
But a defiant-sounding statement from Moscow suggested Putin is unlikely to back off.
“Vladimir Putin emphasized that, in the case of a further spread in violence in eastern regions (of Ukraine) and Crimea, Russia maintains the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population that lives there,” the Kremlin said.
Obama told Putin the appropriate way to address concerns about the treatment of ethnic Russian and minority populations in Ukraine is to do so peacefully through direct contact with Ukraine’s new government and through international observers. He said the U.S. was prepared to help mediate such a dialogue.
Obama also made clear that Russia’s continued violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would have a negative effect on Russia’s standing in the eyes of the world.
Putin has so far dismissed the few specific threats from the United States. The U.S. and Europe are not obligated to come to Ukraine’s defense because it does not have full-member status in NATO, while broader international action through the United Nations seems all but impossible because of Russia’s veto power as a permanent member of the Security Council.
Administration officials had said on Friday that Obama might retaliate by canceling a trip to Russia in June to attend the Group of Eight international economic summit and could also cut off trade talks with Moscow. The White House said Saturday that the U.S. will suspend upcoming participation in “preparatory meetings” for the summit, which is being planned for the Black Sea resort of Sochi, site of the just-completed Winter Olympics.
Political turmoil in Ukraine pushed President Viktor Yanukovych from office following massive pro-democracy protests after he rejected a partnership agreement with the European Union in favor of deepening his country’s historical ties with Moscow.
AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.
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