Vladimir Putin Ignores Ukraine Warnings From Obama

WASHINGTON - One by one, President Barack Obama's warnings to Russia are being brushed aside by President Vladimir Putin, who appears to only be speeding up efforts to formally stake his claim to Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

In the week since Obama first declared there would be "costs" if Putin pressed into Crimea, Russian forces have taken control of the region and a referendum has been scheduled to decide its future. Obama declared the March 16 vote a violation of international law, but in a region where ethnic Russians are the majority, the referendum seems likely to become another barrier to White House efforts to compel Putin to pull his forces from Crimea.

"The referendum vote is going to serve for Putin, in his mind, as the credibility and legitimacy of Russia's presence there," said Andrew Kuchins, the director of the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

If Crimea votes to join Russia, the referendum could also put Obama in the awkward position of opposing the outcome of a popular vote.

The White House has tried to match Russia's assertive posture by moving quickly to impose financial sanctions and travel bans on Russians and other opponents of Ukraine's new central government. U.S. officials have also urgently tried to rally the international community around the notion that Russia's military maneuvers in Crimea are illegal, even seeking support from China, Moscow's frequent ally against the West.

"I am confident that we are moving forward together, united in our determination to oppose actions that violate international law and to support the government and people of Ukraine," Obama said Thursday.

The European Union also announced Thursday that it was suspending talks with Putin's government on a wide-ranging economic agreement and on granting Russian citizens visa-free travel within the 28-nation bloc — a long-standing Russian objective.

The White House says it still believes a diplomatic solution to the dispute with Russia is possible. Obama spoke with Putin for more than an hour Thursday, outlining a potential resolution that would include Russia pulling its forces back in Crimea and direct talks between the Kremlin and Ukraine.

But the fast-moving developments in Crimea may mean that the ultimate question facing Obama is not be what the U.S. can do to stop Russia from taking control of Crimea, but what kind of relationship Washington can have with Moscow should that occur.

White House advisers insist the U.S. could not go back to a business as usual approach with Russia if Moscow were to annex Crimea or recognize its independence. But that may be seen as empty threat to the Kremlin after the U.S., as well as Europe, did just that in 2008 after Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway territories of Georgia. Russia also continues to keep military forces in both territories.

Privately, U.S. officials say Russia is running a similar playbook as it seeks to increase its influence in Crimea. And regional experts say Putin also appears to have a larger goal: influencing central government lawmakers in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv as they prepare for elections later this spring.

"It says to the Ukrainians, Don't mess with me or I'll slice off a finger," said Matthew Rojansky, a Russia analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The months-long political crisis in Ukraine bubbled over late last month when protesters in Kyiv ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. Amid the chaos, thousands of Russian forces took control of Crimea, a strategically important outpost in the Black Sea where Moscow has a military base.

The outcome of the Crimea referendum is not guaranteed, but there are clear indications the region will choose to side with Russia. About 60 per cent of Crimea's population already identifies itself as Russian. And Crimea's 100-seat parliament voted unanimously Thursday in favour of joining Russia.

The referendum had been scheduled for March 30, but was pushed up two weeks. And while the original vote was only on whether Crimea should get enhanced local powers, the peninsula's residents will now also vote on whether to join Russia.

U.S. officials say they believe Putin was involved in orchestrating the referendum, though the Russian leader made no public statements about the planned vote. Earlier in the week, Putin said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, while insisting its population has the right to determine the region's status in a referendum.

U.S. officials say they also see an unlikely ally emerging in China, which has frequently sided with Russia at the United Nations Security Council in blocking Western actions. While China has not condemned Russia's actions outright, Beijing's ambassador to the U.N. this week said it supported "noninterference" and respects Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, spoke this week with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi. The White House said the officials agreed on the need for a peaceful resolution to the dispute that "upholds Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

It appears unlikely China would actually take punitive actions against Russia. U.S. officials say Beijing is largely acting out of self-interest and appears to view the developments in Crimea through the prism of a nation that also has ethnic minorities who live in border regions and identify more closely with neighbouring countries.

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  • UKRAINE-RUSSIA-POLITICS-UNREST-CRIMEA

    A Ukrainian police officer (L) and a pro-Russian volunteer (R) detain a topless activist of the Ukrainian women movement Femen, protesting against the war in front of Cremea's parliament during a pro-Russian rally in Simferopol on March 6, 2014. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

  • UKRAINE-RUSSIA-POLITICS-UNREST-CRIMEA

    A Ukrainian police officer (L) and pro-Russian volunteers detain a topless activist of the Ukrainian women movement Femen, protesting against the war in front of Cremea's parliament during a pro-Russian rally in Simferopol on March 6, 2014 . AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

  • UKRAINE-RUSSIA-POLITICS-UNREST-CRIMEA

    A topless activist of the Ukrainian women movement Femen tries to take the microphone away while protesting against the war in front of Cremea's parliament during a pro-Russian rally in Simferopol on March 6, 2014. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

  • UKRAINE-RUSSIA-POLITICS-UNREST-CRIMEA

    A Ukrainian police officer (L) and pro-Russian volunteers detain a topless activist of the Ukrainian women movement Femen, protesting against the war in front of Cremea's parliament during a pro-Russian rally in Simferopol on March 6, 2014 . AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

  • UKRAINE-RUSSIA-POLITICS-UNREST-CRIMEA

    A Ukrainian police officer (C-top) and pro-Russian volunteers detain a topless activist of the Ukrainian women movement Femen, protesting against the war in front of Cremea's parliament during a pro-Russian rally in Simferopol on March 6, 2014 . AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

  • UKRAINE-RUSSIA-POLITICS-UNREST-CRIMEA

    A Ukrainian police officer (L) and pro-Russian volunteers detain a topless activist of the Ukrainian women movement Femen, protesting against the war in front of Cremea's parliament during a pro-Russian rally in Simferopol on March 6, 2014 . AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

  • UKRAINE-RUSSIA-POLITICS-UNREST-CRIMEA

    Ukrainian police officers detain a topless activist of the Ukrainian women movement Femen, protesting against the war in front of Cremea's parliament during a pro-Russian rally in Simferopol on March 6, 2014 . AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

  • UKRAINE-RUSSIA-POLITICS-UNREST-CRIMEA

    A topless activist of the Ukrainian women movement Femen tries to take the microphone away while protesting against the war in front of Cremea's parliament during a pro-Russian rally in Simferopol on March 6, 2014. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

  • UKRAINE-RUSSIA-POLITICS-UNREST-CRIMEA

    A man strangles a topless activist of the Ukrainian women movement Femen, protesting against the war in front of Cremea's parliament during a pro-Russian rally in Simferopol on March 6, 2014 . AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

According to CNN's Anna Coren, "The Crimean self-appointed government that came in a week ago, they are the ones who are really cracking down, who are trying to get a grip of the media."

CNN reports its team was ordered to stop broadcasting or they'd be kicked out of their hotel. It also reports that two Ukrainian TV stations were forced by masked men to shut down in Crimea. Video footage also allegedly shows a Bulgarian journalist taking photos and then being tackled to ground.

WATCH:

Read more here.

The Associated Press reports that employees of its Global Media Services were stripped of their equipment and accused of spying by armed men.

Two other men then came and took photos of AP's equipment, including protective jackets, and accused the crew of being spies.

Later, armed men showed up and ordered the crew to put their hands against the wall while they cut cables and took the equipment away. Some of the equipment has been recovered, but much is still missing. The contractors and employees were kept at the building for about two hours before being released unharmed.

Read the full AP report here.

-- Andrew Hart

The Pentagon estimated on Friday that as many as 20,000 Russian troops may be in Crimea.

Reuters reports:

Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby, asked about the number of Russian forces in Crimea, cited estimates of up to around 20,000 of them. Pressed on the 20,000 figure, Kirby said: "That's a good estimate right now."

"But it's just an estimate. And as I said, we don't have perfect visibility on the numbers," Kirby said at a Pentagon news conference.

Ukraine's border guards have put the figure far higher.

Read the full story here.

The Associated Press has more details on the siege of a military base in Crimea:

A Ukrainian news agency says a military base in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol is under siege by Russians. No shots have been fired.

The report, citing a duty officer and Ukraine's defense ministry, said a Russian military truck broke down the gates and entered the base, where about 100 Ukrainian troops are stationed.

Interfax, quoting the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, said there were about 20 "attackers," who threw stun grenades.

The Ukrainians barricaded themselves inside one of their barracks, and their commander began negotiations, Interfax said.

Officials indicated on Friday that a change to U.S. policy on exporting natural gas is unlikely amid speculation the U.S. might pursue such an option in response to the crisis in Ukraine.

Reuters notes:

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Air Force One that policy changes would not have an immediate effect and noted that natural gas stocks in Europe were above normal levels because of a mild winter.

"There is no indication currently that there's much risk of a natural gas shortage in the region," he said.

Europe and Ukraine are key export markets for Russian natural gas.

Earnest noted that there were six licenses approved by the Department of Energy related to U.S. natural gas exports. The projects for delivering gas would not be completed until the end of next year, he said.

"So proposals to try to respond to the situation in Ukraine that are related to our policy on exporting natural gas would not have an immediate effect," he said.

Earnest noted that Russia prides itself on being a reliable supplier of natural gas to other countries. That reputation would be jeopardized if it turned off the taps during the Ukraine crisis.

"Russia currently yields about $50 billion a year in revenue from exporting natural gas, so ending that kind of relationship with Europe would have significant financial consequences for Russia as well," he said.

-- Eline Gordts

Russian soldiers have stormed a Ukrainian military base, according to a report in the Ukrainian Pravda, citing Interfax-Ukraine.

Around 100 Ukrainian soldiers were in the base. Roughly 20 people stormed the base, including cossacks and "local radicals" with stun grenades. According to the report, the commander and military officer got out to hold negotiations with those who stormed the base.

-- Luke Johnson

Russian President Vladimir Putin opened the Paralympic Games Friday in Sochi, which of course were scheduled long before Russian forces entered Crimea.

"I hope that the Paralympic Games will reduce the intensity of passions around Ukraine," he told the International Paralympic Committee President Philip Craven, according to ITAR-TASS. "It's important, that all this did not concern the athletes -- so they can focus on the competitions."

Sochi is a mere 300 miles or so from Crimea. Putin has thus far remained silent on a proposed referendum by Crimea to join Russia.

-- Luke Johnson

In a call with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov warned the United States against taking "hasty and reckless steps" that could harm Russian-American relations, Reuters reports.

Lavrov added that U.S. sanctions against Moscow would "hit the country like a boomerang."

-- Eline Gordts

From HuffPost's Paul Blumenthal:

As the United States readies $1 billion in loan guarantees to the new government in Ukraine, along with even more aid for reforming elections and cleaning up corruption, one thing is clear: The public is unlikely to know where that money is going for some time, if ever.

Since 1992, the U.S. has sent $3 billion to $5 billion in aid to Ukraine, with only cursory public disclosure. The U.S. State Department operates an online database, ForeignAssistance.gov, but names of foreign recipients are often left out, and entire sections are blank. Furthermore, the disclosure often comes long after the money has been distributed.

"It is incredibly hard to find this kind of information," Nicole Valentinuzzi, communications manager for Publish What You Fund, an international organization promoting transparency for foreign aid.

Read the full story here.

-- Eline Gordts

The international community is increasingly looking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel to help resolve the dispute over Crimea in Ukraine, though doubts linger about her effectiveness.

From Der Spiegel:

"[B]ecause of Germany's traditional role as a go-between with Russia, many are now looking to Merkel as a potentially vital intermediary with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It is a tremendous challenge. And it isn't just the Europeans who will be watching Berlin closely. The US too is hoping Germany will live up to its new desire to wield influence. According to Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution, Washington's currently troubled relationship with Russia means that it cannot do much -- and that Germany must therefore play a more important role.

Read the full story here.

-- Stephen Calabria

Human rights organization Amnesty International warns in a statement that human rights monitors, independent observers, journalists and pro-Ukrainian protestors in Crimea have reported a growing number of threats and intimidation in the past days. The organization calls on the de facto authorities of the Crimea region, as well as Russian troops in the area, to respect the freedom of movement, assembly and expression of everyone in Ukraine.

Read the full statement here.

Officials in the new Ukrainian leadership are looking for help among a group with which they have not always had the friendliest relations: the oligarchs.

Per the AP:

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) -- In a surprising move after Russia flexed its military might in the Crimean Peninsula, Ukraine's new leadership has reached out to oligarchs for help - appointing them as governors in eastern regions where loyalties to Moscow are strong.

With their wealth, influence, and self-interest in preventing further conflict, the oligarchs could be the key to calming tensions and maintaining Ukraine's control in areas where pro-Russian activists have stoked separatist tensions.

Read more here.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a message on Twitter that its observers have once again been blocked from entering Ukraine's Crimea region. The observers were sent to Crimea at Ukraine's request, and are tasked to monitor tensions on the peninsula.

AFP reports that the team of 47 observers was stopped by armed men at a checkpoint flying the Russian flag.

crimea

A Ukrainian naval officer stands with the Russian warship "Moskva" ("Moscow"), a Slava-class [Soviet ship designation] guided missile cruiser, in the background off the Black Sea shore outside the town of Myrnyi, Western Crimea, Ukraine, Thursday, March 6, 2014.(AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

A U.S. Navy destroyer is on its way to the Black Sea for exercises near the Crimea region.

More details from the Associated Press:

The Navy destroyer USS Truxtun is participating in exercises with Romania and Bulgaria and is expected to be in the Black Sea for several days amid a stand-off over Russia's military incursion into Ukraine.

The exercises come as the U.S. and other Western nations are preparing sanctions against Russia for its recent move to send military troops into Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

Russian lawmakers reassured the chairman of the Crimean parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov, that Moscow would welcome his region into the Russian Federation if voters decide to join Russia in a March 16 referendum.

The Associated Press reports:

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Russia has no intention of annexing Crimea, but Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, made clear that the country would welcome Crimea if it votes in the referendum to join its giant neighbor. About 60 percent of Crimea's population identifies itself as Russian.

"If the decision is made, then (Crimea) will become an absolutely equal subject of the Russian Federation," Matvienko said during a visit from the chairman of the Crimean parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov. She spoke of mistreatment of Russian-speaking residents in Ukraine's east and south, which has been Russia's primary argument for possible intervention in Ukraine.

Read the full story here.

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Via: huffingtonpost.ca


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