U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday again called for Russia to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine — and warned of further isolation and “costs” if Moscow doesn’t respond to the West’s call for a change of course.
The United States and Europe are united in their support for Ukraine, including the need for economic assistance, and in their efforts to isolate Russia for its intervention in Crimea, Obama said, speaking at an European Union-U.S. summit in Brussels, Belgium.
And he said tougher sanctions would follow if Russia engaged in “deeper incursions” into Ukraine.
The United States and Europe recognize that sanctions could have wider global implications, especially for those countries reliant on Russian oil and natural gas, he said.
But discussions are under way on making it easier to export U.S. natural gas to Europe, he said, as well as on other trade issues.
Russia’s intervention in Ukraine’s Crimea region has sparked the biggest East-West confrontation since the end of the Cold War.
Meanwhile, Moscow’s massing of troops near Ukraine’s eastern borders has worried the interim government in Kiev — as well as caused ripples of concern in other former Soviet republics that now belong to the EU and NATO.
Obama warned Russia that it faces a united front in the West. “If anyone in the Russian leadership thought the world wouldn’t care about their actions in Ukraine or that they could drive a wedge between the European Union and the United States, they clearly miscalculated,” he said.
He left the door open to diplomacy to resolve the situation, but said Russia would face increasing isolation and deeper sanctions if it continues to pursue its current course.
Speaking alongside Obama, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy also struck a note of unity, saying Europe and the United States “have a strong and coordinated position” on Ukraine.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea is “a disgrace in the 21st century, and we will not recognize it,” he said.
Europe also stands by Georgia and Moldova, Van Rompuy said, and has brought forward the signing of accession documents with them to June, bringing the prospect of closer ties to Europe.
NATO’s top commander has voiced worries Moscow’s forces could roll into Moldova’s separatist region Transnistria on the opposite side of Ukraine, and Russia fought a brief war with the former Soviet republic of Georgia about five years ago.
Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, said the United States and EU “are working together to make sure that actions that are unacceptable will bear serious consequences.”
Obama will also meet with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen while in Brussels.
In his remarks beforehand, Obama said NATO was a cornerstone of both U.S. and European security — and that the crisis in Ukraine was a reminder of why the alliance is so important.
He also called on those NATO member states that have been cutting military spending to ensure they can still live up to their responsibility to provide collective defense. “Everybody has to chip in,” he said.
At a later speech in Brussels, Obama said Russia’s annexation of Crimea must be met with condemnation, “not because we’re trying to keep Russia down, but because the principles that have meant so much to Europe and the world must be upheld.”
Ukraine: We need support
Russia insists its actions are legitimate and denies having used its armed forces in Crimea, saying the troops that took control of key installations there were local “self-defense” forces.
Russia also insists the government in Kiev is illegitimate because ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Moscow’s, was forced out in an armed coup. Yanukovych’s ouster followed months of street protests sparked by his decision to ditch an EU trade deal in favor of closer ties to Russia.
In an interview Tuesday with PBS, acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Ukraine is struggling to maintain a fighting capability after it was “deliberately dismantled” under Yanukovych.
“What we need is support from the international community. We need technology and military support to overhaul the Ukrainian military and modernize — to be ready not just to fight, but to be ready to win,” Yatsenyuk said.
With an estimated 30,000 Russian troops now positioned near Ukraine’s eastern border, Yatsenyuk repeated his pledge to defend Ukrainian territory.
His government ceded Crimea without a shot to demonstrate to the world that Russia was the aggressor, he said — but if Moscow moves against another portion of Ukraine, the duty of all Ukrainians is “to protect our country,” he said. “We will fight.”
Speaking about the buildup of Russian force, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry told CNN there was a concentration of military equipment near Churovichi in Russia’s Klimovskiy District, some 10 miles from the border.
He cited intelligence reports of camps, communication systems and medical facilities.
Moscow tightens grip
The United States and EU are seeking to exert pressure on Russia through a combination of sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
An EU-Russia summit has been canceled, and the G7 group of leading industrialized countries has excluded Russia from what was the G8. The G7 will meet in June in Brussels, instead of attending a planned G8 summit in the Russian city of Sochi.
But Moscow has so far doggedly pursued its own course, even as Western leaders have denounced its actions as violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty and a breach of international law.
Russia has cited the need to protect ethnic Russians within Ukraine from ultra-nationalists and “fascists” as a justification for intervention on Ukrainian soil.
Hundreds of supporters and paramilitary militia members came out into the streets of Ukraine’s western city of Rivne on Wednesday as a funeral was held for a prominent far-right activist, Oleksandr Muzychko, better known as Sashko Biliy.
He was killed late Monday in what the Ukrainian Interior Ministry said was a shootout with police in Rivne. Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksandr Doniy, whose constituency is in Rivne, gave a different version of events, saying the activist was dragged into a car and then shot.
Muzychko, a leader of Right Sector, a far-right group prominent in the recent anti-government protests, was wanted “for his criminal background and illegal carrying of weapons,” the ministry said.
Amid the heightened tensions, the Russian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday accused the Ukrainian border service of refusing to let air crew off Aeroflot jets for rest periods after landing in Ukraine. Aeroflot is the Russian national carrier.
This “breaks the international acts in compliance with flight safety requirements,” the ministry said in an online statement.
Crimea, Russia ties
Crimea belonged to Russia until 1954, when it was given to Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union. The region has a majority ethnic Russian population and other historic ties to Russia.
A large majority of its population voted in favor of joining Russia in a controversial referendum 10 days ago. Russian lawmakers in turn swiftly voted to absorb the Black Sea peninsula, where Russia has a major naval base, into the Russian Federation, and President Vladimir Putin signed the treaty into law.
In another step to cement the process, the vice speaker of the Crimean parliament, Sergei Tsekov, was made a senator in Russia’s upper house Wednesday, Russia’s state-run ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
At the same time, Kiev has ordered the withdrawal of Ukrainian armed forces from Crimea, citing Russian threats to the lives of military staff and their families — effectively yielding the region to Moscow’s forces. They stormed one of Kiev’s last bases there Monday.
Aleksey Chaly, often referred to as Sevastopol’s new de facto mayor, announced Tuesday the dismissal of all “self-defense” teams, saying the “enemy” was now gone, as no forces loyal to Kiev remain in the city.
“I would like to draw the attention of some commanders of the self-defense units to the fact that the revolution is over,” he said in a video on YouTube. “This week, federal agencies are being established, and we’re beginning to live by the laws of the Russian Federation.”
By Laura Smith-Spark
CNN’s Marie-Louise Gumuchian, Victoria Butenko, Alexander Felton, Radina Gigova and Boriana Milanova contributed to this report.