The Cable

Obama to Putin: 'There Will Be Costs' To Invading Crimea

With Ukraine hurtling toward a potentially bloody breakup and the country's leaders accusing Russia of having launched an invasion, President Barack Obama warned Russia on Friday not to send troops into its neighbor's territory, threatening Moscow that "there will be costs" for undertaking a full-blown incursion of Ukrainian soil.

In a brief statement to reporters at the White House, Obama said that he is "deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine," which would be both "deeply destabilizing" and a "clear violation of Russia's commitment to respect the independence and sovereignty and borders of Ukraine and of international laws." The president's statement comes on the heels of reports out of Crimea that armed forces -- whose uniforms lack national insignias but are widely believed to be Russian -- have seized control of the airports near Sevastopol and Simferopol.

Obama and his top foreign-policy aides are growing increasingly worried that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be preparing to use military force to deal Ukraine's new pro-Western government an embarrassing blow by engineering the secession of Crimea. To signal his displeasure, Obama is considering skipping this summer's G-8 summit in Sochi.

Earlier on Friday, acting Ukrainian President Oleksander Turchynov accused Russia of seeking to provoke an armed conflict in Crimea by following a script that mimics the lead-up to its 2008 invasion of Georgia. "They are implementing the scenario like the one carried out in Abkhazia, when after provoking a conflict, they started an annexation of the territory," Turchynov said, referring to the breakaway Georgian province.

Meanwhile at the United Nations, the United States threw its weight behind an effort to find a mediated solution to the crisis launched by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who dispatched his special envoy, Robert Serry, to Crimea to try to stem a move by pro-Russian separatists to break away from Ukraine.

"We are gravely disturbed by reports of Russian military deployment into the Crimea," Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters following an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the crisis in Ukraine. "The United States calls upon Russia to pull back the military forces that are being built up in the region, to stand down and to allow the Ukrainian people the opportunity to pursue their own government, to create their own destiny and to so freely, without intimidation or fear."

The remarks came one day after armed pro-Russian gunmen seized key government installations in Crimea and planted the Russian flag on the regional parliament. During a closed-door session of the U.N. Security Council, Ukrainian U.N. envoy Yury Sergeyev accused Russia of illegally sending attack helicopters, transport planes, and other military equipment into Ukraine and appealed to the council's 15 members, including Russia's U.N. representative, to "do what Ukraine demands: withdraw all of them."

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Sergeyev said that 10 Russian Ilyushin-76 transport planes and 11 Mi-24 attack helicopters had illegally crossed the border into Ukraine on Friday. Sergeyev said that Russia had flatly rejected requests by the new government to engage in political talks over the future of Crimea.

Russia's U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin dismissed suggestions that Moscow intended to invade Ukraine, saying that Russia was more concerned about the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity than Kiev's European and American backers. Churkin acknowledged that Russian forces had engaged in military maneuvers inside Crimea but said such activities were permitted under a joint Ukrainian-Russian agreement governing the presence of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine. Armored personnel carriers believed to belong to the Russian naval base at Sevastopol were seen moving around Crimea on Friday.

Churkin denounced Ukraine's new government for violating the terms of a Feb. 21 European-brokered power-sharing agreement that would have preserved a more limited role for deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Although Russia's representative at the talks that produced the pact refused to sign it, Churkin said that the terms of the accord -- including the creation of a national unity government and the writing of a new constitution -- offered the best path toward resolving the current political crisis. The legal basis for ousting Yanukovych, he said, was "very questionable."

Churkin responded coolly to Ban's decision to dispatch Serry to Crimea, saying it was inappropriate for outsiders to "impose" a mediated settlement on Ukrainians. "We have to ask the authorities in Crimea what they feel about this kind of mission," he said. "If they are comfortable with it, then of course we would have nothing against it."

Ban dispatched Serry, a former Dutch ambassador to Ukraine, to Kiev to urge the country's new leaders to reach out to pro-Russian political leaders in the east, and to try to integrate the Party of Regions, to which Yanukovych belonged, into the new government. "The main message is the government needs to be inclusive," said one diplomat familiar with the discussion.

Given the specter of Russian military intervention, Ukrainian diplomats have requested the Security Council step in and mediate the conflict, but U.N.-based diplomats say Ukraine faces an uphill battle in securing support for its cause at the council, as Russia has the power to veto any action in the body.

The diplomatic push comes as senior American, U.N., and European envoys, including Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Serry, the U.N. envoy, have rushed to Kiev over the past several days to show support for the new government and counsel its new leadership on how to navigate the diplomatic crisis with Russia and pro-Russian forces within Ukraine.

Vice President Joseph Biden phoned Ukraine's new prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, on Thursday. He welcomed the formation of a new government in Ukraine and pledged American support through the transition. But Biden, Serry, and other foreign delegates also pressed the new leader to work constructively with Russia. "The vice president reassured the prime minister that the United States will offer its full support as Ukraine undertakes the reforms necessary to return to economic health, pursue reconciliation, uphold its international obligations, and seek open and constructive relations with all its neighbors," the White House said in a statement.

Secretary of State John Kerry called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in an effort to calm the situation. But the two former Cold War superpowers remained fundamentally divided over the direction Ukraine should take. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the U.S. government is "watching closely" as events unfold in Ukraine, and warned Russia it "would be a grave mistake" to intervene militarily in Ukraine. Psaki said that Yanukovych "has lost legitimacy as he abdicated his responsibilities" by fleeing Kiev, and leaving behind a "vacuum of leadership."

Asked if U.S. officials had any evidence indicating Russian troops had intervened in Ukraine, Psaki said: "I don't have any independent information to share with you."

Putin spoke by telephone with senior European leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy. "They stressed the extreme importance of preventing further escalation in violence and the need to quickly normalize the situation," according to a Kremlin statement. "The politicians agreed to maintain personal contact regarding this topic and to intensify cooperation between foreign policy departments."

Russia confirmed that it had authorized maneuvers by armored vehicles in Crimea, but said that the exercise was aimed at guaranteeing the protection of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which is based in Ukraine. It said that its military activities were permitted under Russian and Ukrainian agreements.

The Russian foreign ministry has declined to engage in direct talks with Ukrainian authorities in Kiev, saying that it "considers the events in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea as a result of internal political processes in Ukraine," according to a ministry statement reported by Itar-Tass.

Russian officials, meanwhile, have been unwilling to accept the new government. On Monday, Amb. Churkin complained to the Security Council that the United Nations leadership was showing support for the new Ukrainian government. He has also issued a demarche, arguing that Serry's visit to Kiev lent legitimacy to an illegitimate government, according to a diplomatic source.

"We are particularly concerned about the legitimacy of the actions being taken by Ukraine's Supreme Rada," Ukraine's parliament, Churkin told the Security Council Friday, claiming Kiev's leaders were engineering "forced regime change by creating facts on the ground." Churkin accused Ukrainian leaders and anti-Russian extremists of attacking religious shrines, banning the Russian language, and "muzzling dissent" through "dictatorial and sometimes terrorist methods." Churkin also expressed alarm that international institutions, including the United Nations secretariat, were supporting Ukraine's new leaders.

But U.N.-based diplomats challenged Churkin's characterization, saying that Ukraine's new prime minister has sought to assure Ukraine's Russian minorities that their rights will be respected under the new government.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Partisan Infighting Hinders AIPAC's Iran Lobbying

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the most powerful special interest groups in the United States, has an unusual problem on its hands.

On Sunday, March 2, it will welcome a record 14,000 attendees to Washington, D.C., for its annual policy conference. After two consecutive days of pro-Israel speeches, those supporters will storm Capitol Hill to lobby U.S. lawmakers. But according to sources inside and outside AIPAC, the group does not yet have a piece of legislation to pass for the issue it cares about most: Iran's nuclear program.

The absence of a bill or nonbinding resolution reflects AIPAC's bruising battle with the White House that left Democrats and Republicans bitterly divided on the traditionally nonpartisan issue. It's also leading to criticisms that the group doesn't have a clear legislative agenda ahead of its most important lobbying event of the year.

"When an organization places so much focus on one issue, people are going to be expecting something proactive to do on it when they come to town," said Dylan Williams, director of government affairs at J Street, AIPAC's dovish pro-Israel rival. "And as of today, it's not clear what that something is or whether there will be anything."

To be sure, strenuous efforts were made to introduce some kind of legislation on Iran's nuclear program before the start of the confab, including a long-delayed House resolution outlining the acceptable terms of a final nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers. But multiple Hill sources say that the nonbinding resolution, fleshed out by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), will not be introduced before the conference. Instead, aides in the Senate and House said lawmakers may join together to draft letters to the president, but even the fate of that effort is uncertain.

"They just want something," said a GOP Senate aide. "They've spent so much political capital, they'll accept just about anything at this point to not have egg on their face."

But AIPAC officials say such criticism is shortsighted and does not reflect the ambitious agenda it will lay out for thousands of activists next week. "It will not be one piece of legislation, one resolution, or one letter, but a whole series of actions," an AIPAC official told The Cable.

The "comprehensive strategy" outlined by the AIPAC representative will emphasize Congress's role in overseeing the Obama administration's negotiations to curb Iran's nuclear program. That will include scrutinizing the implementation of the interim deal that Tehran and Washington agreed to in November and outlining the parameters of a final agreement.

But AIPAC finds itself trying to thread a difficult needle between Democrats loyal to the president and Republicans eager to drive a wedge in the pro-Israel community. "The issue of Iran sanctions has now become a partisan one with Republicans on one side and the White House and Democrats on the other," said a congressional aide who works closely with AIPAC. "Unfortunately, once an issue becomes partisan, a bipartisan organization like AIPAC has difficulty managing it. Instead of having policy disagreements that are reconcilable, you have political disagreements that are a zero-sum game."

AIPAC, like the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opposed the interim deal with Iran and insists that any final deal require Iran to stop enriching uranium on its soil, full stop. Although the interim deal temporarily halted major aspects of Iran's nuclear program in exchange for $7 billion in sanctions relief, pro-Israel hard-liners say it gave too much away. Looking forward, an AIPAC memo to Congress last week demanded that any final deal require Iran to dismantle all "illicit nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities." But many experts inside and outside the administration say Iran would never accept such a deal.

These tactical differences have shattered the usual bipartisan support for AIPAC legislation, leaving the group in an awkward position.

Up until early February, AIPAC supported an Iran sanctions bill by Sens. Robert Menendez and Mark Kirk that threatens more sanctions on Tehran's oil industry if no final deal is reached. The bill racked up an impressive amount of support, with 59 co-sponsors. But the White House threatened to veto the legislation, calling it a "march to war" that could detonate the sensitive nuclear talks in Geneva. After a handful of Democratic leaders rallied to the White House's side, AIPAC reversed course and said the legislation should be shelved for a later date.

According to the AIPAC official, the group is still searching for more co-sponsors of the bill but isn't asking Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to pass it now. "Our belief is it should come to a vote when it has the broadest support," said the official. That decision has angered a number of Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) who've made immediate passage of the bill a signature issue. But it has also smoothed over some anxieties by pro-Israel Democrats who bristled at the group's open defiance of a Democratic president and his allies on the Hill, including Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a lawmaker with a long history of support for the Jewish state. On Thursday, National Journal reported that 82 deep-pocketed Democratic donors sent a letter to Democrats in Congress urging them not to pass any legislation that could jeopardize the nuclear talks.

That same day, Israel became a partisan issue again when Senate Republicans used a filibuster to block a vote on expanding veterans benefits because Democrats would not attach a GOP amendment on Iran sanctions. Reid refused to allow a vote on the amendment due to concerns that it would implode the administration's Iran talks. As a result, the effort to expand health-care programs for veterans, something supported by both parties, failed.

"I hope all the veterans groups have witnessed all the contortions the Republicans have done to defeat this bill," Reid said. "Shame on Republicans for bringing base politics into a bill to help veterans."

A senior GOP aide complained that congressional Democrats were acting against their own views to support the president. "If everyone voted their conscience … it would pass overwhelmingly," he said.

Meanwhile, AIPAC's efforts to cobble together some sort of nonbinding resolution or letter that Democrats and Republicans can agree on has led some to criticize it as weak or irrelevant since neither of the actions would carry the force of law. The AIPAC official said that view fails to appreciate the current political climate in Washington for any lobbying group. "I think a lot of people lose perspective," the official said, referring to AIPAC's efforts to round up 59 co-sponsors for Menendez's bill. "At a time of extraordinary polarization, this has extraordinarily impressive bipartisan support.… I can't think of another piece of substantive legislation that has this breadth of bipartisan support."

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