Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Summit of Eurasian Economic Cooperation Council, March 5, 2014.
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State Dept. accuses Putin of lying to ‘justify illegal action’ in Ukraine

Updated

The State Department Wednesday issued a scathing takedown against the Russian government for spinning “a false narrative to justify its illegal action in Ukraine.”

In a 10-point fact sheet, the department specifically targets claims by President Vladimir Putin after Russian troops seized control of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine earlier this week.

“The world has not seen such startling Russian fiction since Dostoyevsky wrote, ‘The formula ‘two plus two equals five’ is not without its attractions,’” the department said in the statement, referencing the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

In the last week, diplomatic tensions have swelled since Russian forces entered Crimea, a former Soviet Republic, and began taking hold of key infrastructure. Russia refuses to recognize Ukraine’s interim government, which is seeking to strengthen ties with the west, after uprisings across the region forced President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country.

Putin downplayed Russia’s reaction to the crisis on Tuesday, denying the troops’ existence and calling them local self-defense forces. Putin also said that he doesn’t think it’s necessary to intervene in Ukraine with his military—yet.

The State Department pushed back hard against Putin’s claims, saying “Strong evidence suggests that members of Russian security services are at the heart of the highly organized anti-Ukraine forces in Crimea.”

The statement continues: “While these units wear uniforms without insignia, they drive vehicles with Russian military license plates and freely identify themselves as Russian security forces when asked by the international media and the Ukrainian military.”

The fact sheet goes on to counter Putin’s claims that ethnic Russians and their military facilities are under threat, and shoots down attempts to cast Ukraine’s interim government as illegitimate. 

Hours before the statement was released, Secretary of State John Kerry said he along with his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts agreed to continue progress toward a diplomatic solution to de-escalate tensions in the Crimean peninsula.

While the foreign ministers met “as a group,” Ukraine’s Andriy Deshchytsia and Russia’s Sergey Lavrov did not meet one-on-one, Kerry said. Nonetheless, the secretary of state called the diplomatic developments “constructive” during a press conference in Paris Wednesday and told reporters that “we initiated a process that, over the next couple of days, we hope can bring us to that de-escalation.”

“I personally feel as if I have something concrete to take back and talk to President Obama about,” Kerry said. “And I believe that Foreign Minister Lavrov is in exactly the same position with respect to President Putin.”

“I’d rather be where we are today than where we [were] yesterday,” Kerry said. He and Lavrov are expected to continue discussions in Rome Thursday.

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NBC News’ Ian Williams, former US Ambassador to Morocco Marc Ginsberg and The New York Times’ Josh Barro join to discuss the situation in Crimea.

Kerry said he had “zero expectation” that Russian officials would agree to meet face-to-face with Ukraine’s interim leaders Wednesday, and that it “would have been inappropriate” for the Russians and other world powers to make some kind of agreement without being able to consult with the Ukrainians.

“We agreed to continue intense discussions in the coming days with Russia and with the Ukrainians in order to see how we can help normalize the situation, stabilize it, and overcome the crisis,” Kerry said. “All parties agreed today that it is important to resolve these issues through dialogue.”

Kerry, the U.K.’s William Hague, Deshchytsia and Lavrov represent the four nations that are signatories to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the diplomatic agreement that first outlined Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea.

Crimea is host to a Russian naval base, and Russia maintains it is within its right to deploy up to 25,000 troops under an existing bilateral agreement. While Ukraine’s Yanukovych ensured the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s permission to maintain the base until 2042, the temporary government could move to evict. 

Western nations are accusing Russia of violating the Budapest Memorandum, which committed the four nations to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine” in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapon to Russia for disarmament.

Kerry maintained Wednesday that Russia violated Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” which as a result, has “united the world in support of the Ukrainian people.” 

“Russia made a choice, and we have clearly stated that we believe it is the wrong choice,” Kerry said regarding the decision to move troops into Crimea. “Russia can now choose to de-escalate this situation, and we are committed to working with Russia.”

Lavrov and Kerry met two times Wednesday, once briefly and once at the Russian embassy. Kerry “urged direct talks between Russia and Ukraine,” according to a senior State Department official, a point Kerry reiterated in the afternoon press conference.

Ukraine has been locked in civil conflict since November, when Yanukovych turned down an economic agreement with the European Union that had been years in the making in favor of stronger ties with Russia. Pro-European protests turned violent toward the end of January, at which point Putin offered to buy $15 billion in Ukrainian debt and cut the price of Russian gas sent to Ukraine, in an effort to shore up support for the Russian deal. 

Obama has continued to monitor the developments in Ukraine and has been in close contact with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who, according to a report in the New York Times, confided that she felt Putin was “in another world.” Obama spoke with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron by phone Wednesday. 

Western leaders continued pressuring Russia to de-escalate the military intervention in the Ukrainian peninsula Crimea. Aid packages also began emerging: the European Union agreed to a $15 billion package of funds and loans. The U.S. is working on moving a $1 billion package through Congress; the House of Representatives could vote on it as soon as Thursday. Meanwhile, the U.S. held back a presidential delegation to the Sochi Paralympics and is threatening to pull out of the G-8 summit in Sochi unless Putin withdraws his troops. 

Russia, Ukraine and Vladimir Putin

State Dept. accuses Putin of lying to 'justify illegal action' in Ukraine

Updated