SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine – U.S. President Barack Obama emphasized to President Vladimir Putin of Russia Thursday that the United States was taking several steps, in coordination with its European partners, in response to what he said was Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the White House announced.
The two presidents spoke by telephone for an hour about the crisis in the Crimean peninsula, which has been effectively occupied by Russian forces. Putin said in a statement released on Friday that there are still differences with the United States in their approaches and assessments of the Ukraine crisis, and insisted the new administration in Kiev had imposed "absolutely illegitimate decisions on the eastern, southeastern and Crimea regions."
"Russia cannot ignore calls for help in this matter and it acts accordingly, in full compliance with the international law," Putin said.
Obama insisted that Putin accept a diplomatic resolution of the situation, by addressing the interests of Russia, the people of Ukraine, and the international community.
As a part of that resolution, the governments of Ukraine and Russia would hold direct talks, facilitated by the international community; international monitors could ensure that the rights of all Ukrainians are protected, including ethnic Russians; Russian forces would return to their bases; and the international community would work together to support the Ukrainian people as they prepare for elections in May.
Obama indicated that U.S. Secretary of State Kerry would continue discussions with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the government of Ukraine, and other international partners in the days to come to advance those objectives.
The Parliament of the heavily Russian-speaking Crimea region voted unanimously Thursday to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. The move was roundly condemned by the United States and Western governments, which announced their first round of diplomatic sanctions against Moscow.
The vote in the regional capital of Simferopol passed 78-0 with eight abstentions. A referendum will follow, in nine days in which Crimeans will choose whether to endorse parliament’s decision or stay in Ukraine.
As the vote was under way, a pro-Russia rally took place outside. Two members of the radical-feminist group Femen tried to protest the Russian invasion and were violently removed from the scene.
Otherwise, there was little dissent, though a leader of the Crimean Tatar minority, Refat Chubarov, said ethnic Tatars who oppose joining Russia would boycott the referendum.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk described the parliament’s decision as “a farce,” and Western leaders attacked it as well. U.S. President Barack Obama told a press conference in Washington that the referendum “would violate the Ukrainian constitution and violate international law.”
He signed an executive order banning U.S. visas for anyone who has taken steps to undermine the territorial integrity of Ukraine, though no names have been released. The next step the administration is planning is to seize assets of Russians involved in the invasion of Crimea.
Meanwhile, the leaders of the European Union meeting in Brussels stopped short of economic sanctions against Russia or Russians, even though some EU members, especially Poland, urged them to do so. Poland shares a border with both Ukraine and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
So far, the EU’s stance is to suspend talks with Russia on new visa arrangements and a new agreement on EU-Russia relations. Also, it has halted plans for its leaders to attend the G8 summit of industrialized nations that Russia was to host in Sochi in three months.
Russia has thus far refused to cooperate with any country or organization on the crisis in Ukraine. Russian troops Wednesday prevented observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from reaching Crimea by land and forced them to return to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, a series of standoffs between Russian troops and Ukrainian soldiers barricading themselves in their bases on the peninsula continues. The Russians have not yet opened fire or used force in an attempt to break into the bases.
In what was probably an attempt to back up the Kremlin’s claims that there were no Russian troops operating in Crimea – only “local self-defense groups” – the Russian troops left some entrances to the bases, to be replaced by local pro-Russia militiamen.
At one base, the Russians damaged fighter jets of the Ukrainian Air Force before leaving. Russian troops and militiamen also prevented Ukrainian television channels from broadcasting in Crimea.
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