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.
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