The Cable

U.S. Diplomatic Efforts Failing to Resolve Crisis in Ukraine

President Obama's diplomatic effort to head off a violent breakup of Ukraine ran aground Saturday as a top U.N. envoy was blocked from a peace mission to the disputed region of Crimea and Russia's parliament, or Duma, approved a request by Russian President Vladimir Putin to send military forces to Ukraine in support of pro-Russian Ukrainians.

The White House and other European governments have been pressing for international mediation in Ukraine, saying it offered the only hope of reaching a bloodless resolution to the crisis. During a closed-door session of the U.N. Security Council Friday, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, proposed the U.N. send special envoy Robert Serry to the Crimea to see if he could persuade pro-Russian leaders there to make peace with authorities in Kiev. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki moon on Friday instructed Serry -- a former Dutch ambassador to Ukraine who currently serves as the U.N. special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process -- to travel immediately to Crimea.

But Crimea's pro-Russian authorities have refused to extend an invitation to Serry, according to a diplomatic source tracking the peace process. Crimea's newly appointed prime minister has asked Russia for help. Serry, meanwhile, has been unable able to secure a flight to Crimea, where Russian-backed forces have seized control of the main airports, according to diplomatic sources.

Ban's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, told reporters at U.N. headquarters Saturday that the diplomatic mission to Crimea had been called off for now. Serry "had wanted to visit Crimea but this proved to be logistically difficult and therefore he has opted to go to Geneva as initially planned, and this will be to brief the [U.N.] Secretary General," Nesirky said.

Obama sought to breath life into the diplomatic process, telling President Putin during a 90-minute phone call that the Russian leader should address his concerns in Ukraine through direct talks with the Ukrainian government, backed by international mediators, the White House said in a statement. The President also proposed the immediate deployment of international monitors to Ukraine under the auspices of the UN Security Council and the UN and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Russia, the White House noted, is a member of both organizations, giving it a priviliged position to ensure its interests are addressed.

But Obama also warned Putin that Russia's "continued violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity would negatively impact Russia's standing in the international community," according to the White House statement. Obama also told Putin that the United States will suspend participation in preparatory meetings with Russia for the upcoming Group of 8 industrial powers summit. "Russia continued violation of international law will lead to greater political and economic isolation," Obama said.

The Kremlin issued its own readout of the conversation, noting that Putin had defended his decision, claiming that Ukraine's new government had encouraged the "provocative, criminal actions by ultra-nationalists" and threatened ethnic Russians.

"The Russian president underlined that there are real threats to the life and health of Russian citizens and compatriots on Ukrainian territory," according to the statement. "Vladimir Putin stressed that if violence spread further in the eastern regions of Ukraine and in Crimea, Russia reserves the right to protect its interest and those of Russian speakers living there."

Speaking at an emergency session of the U.N. Securty Council, U.N. Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson updated delegates on the crisis, noting that "airports, communications and public buildings, including regional parliament, reportedly continue to be blocked by unidentified armed men. There are further reports of armed personnel taking control of regional buildings in several cities in the east and south of Ukraine." Despite the troubles, Eliasson said there "are some encouraging signs," including an announcement by Kiev that it is prepared to broaden the government to include representatives from Eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine's U.N. envoy, Yuriy Sergeyev, was downbeat.

Challenging Russia's characterization of its decision to intervene to protect ethnic Russians, Sergeyev said that Russian military action in the Crimea "constituted an act of aggression against Ukraine" and "brutally violated the basic principles of the [UN] charter." 

Sergeyev said that the Russian Duma's authorization of Putin's request to send troops to Ukraine was redundant.  "They are already there and there number is increasingy every hour," he said.

Obama's national security team met on Saturday "to receive an update on the situation in Ukraine and discuss potential policy options," said a senior administration official. The White House planned to provide further updates later in the day.

The U.N. chief, meanwhile, discussed the crisis in Ukraine by telephone with President Putin Saturday. In remarks following the talk, Ban made no reference to the Russian parliament's decision to authorized military intervention in Ukraine. But he urged Putin t "to engage in direct dialogue with the authorities in Kiev."

"I am gravely concerned by some of the recent events in particular those that could in any way compromise the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country," Ban added. "Cool heads must prevail."

European governments expressed alarm about the Russian decision to intervene.

Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said his government summoned the Russian ambassador to the foreign office to "register our deep concern" and that he would travel to Ukraine Sunday to show Britain's support for the new government in Ukraine." Hague said he has urged Russian foreign minister in a phone conversation Saturday to take steps "to calm this dangerous situation" and to participate in political talks with Ukraine's government in Kiev.

The Russian decision to seek parliamentary approval for military intervention followed a call for help from Crimea's Prime Minister Serkiy Aksyonov to bring "peace and tranquility."

Putin defended his action on the grounds that it was essential to act to protect the lives of Russian nationals.

Ukraine's interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, said Moscow's decision to send troops to Ukraine was illegal. "Russian military intervention in Ukraine is clearly against international law and principles of European security," he said Saturday.

Power continued to push at the United Nations today to persuade Russia to support a diplomatic mission in Crimea Saturday at the second emergency meeting of the Security Council in two days.

Speaking in today's emergency session of the UN Security Council, Power said the United States is still seeking to stand up an international mediation effort.

Citing fresh reports of Russian military activities in Crimea, Power said that Russia's conduct "as dangerous as it is destabilizing," citing fresh reports of Russian military intervention in Crimea.

"The Russian military must stand down," she said. "The Russian military must stand down." Power said the United States respects Russia's "historical ties to Ukraine" but that it has ignored appeals for dialogue with Kiev. "It is ironic that the Russian Federation regularly goes out of its way in this chamber to empathize the  the sanctity of national border and of sovereignty, but Russia actions in Ukraine are violating the sovereignty of Ukraine."

But Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, has been dismissive of U.N. peace efforts, suggesting it might be better if Serry stuck to the Middle East. "We are concerned about the Middle East peace process, you know. We are concerned that he has been pushed into this thing," Churkin said. "As a matter of principle we are against this sort of imposed mediation."

One European diplomat at the Security Council said that the deadlock in the council was growing eerily reminiscent of the darkest days of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956. Today, as then, the Security Council has little diplomatic leverage to prevent Russia, which enjoys veto power, from using force in eastern Ukraine.

Churkin seemed to take offense at suggestions that Moscow was throwing its weight around. Asked late Friday whether his country intended to intervene militarily in Ukraine to achieve its own political aims, he considered the question and then laughed mockingly. "Really, really. Even the question is aggravating."

Meanwhile, members of the U.S. Congress in both parties issued a flurry of statements condemning Russia's actions and calling for greater U.S. involvement.

"Vladimir Putin is seizing a neighboring territory - again - so President Obama must lead a meaningful, unified response with our European allies," said Sen Bob Corker, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Tennessee Republican vowed that Congress would consider "targeted sanctions against Russian persons and entities" involved in undermining the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged support for U.S. loan guarantees to Ukraine and other forms of assistance. "Today, Ukraine faces formidable challenges, but its people should know that the United States stands with them," he said. 


Shane Harris and John Hudson contributed reporting. The post was updated on March 1 at 6:50 p.m. 

Viktor Drachev / AFP

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.