President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry Tuesday condemned Russia’s invasion into the Crimea region of Ukraine, just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to downplay his military's actions.
“There is a strong belief that Russia’s action is violating international law,” Obama said on Tuesday from the White House. “Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers,” but he’s “not fooling everybody.”
In the last week, Russia mounted a surprise take over of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine just as that country was seeking closer ties with the west and a more democratic government of its own. Outrage over the Russian moves, coming just days after the closing of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, has pored forth from world capitals as leaders scrambled for a diplomatic solution and punitive measures against Russia.
“We condemn the Russian federation’s act of aggression,” Kerry said on Tuesday from Ukraine's capital, Kiev.
“Russia has been working hard to create a pretext to invade,” Kerry said.
The U.S. secretary of state gave a lengthy speech that aimed to “set the record straight” on what Russian have said publicly about the crisis in Ukraine. Officials claim that Russian citizens were in danger and had requested Russian forces’ invasion.
Kerry said Ukraine’s new “government has acted remarkably responsibly, by urging total calm, by not wanting to have any provocation. By urging their troops – who have a legal right to oppose the troops who are invading – not to engage,” he said.
If Russia doesn’t de-escalate the situation, Kerry promised that the U.S. and “our partners will not have any other choice but tresponsibilo continue […] to isolate Russia politically, diplomatically, and economically.”
He continued: “It is diplomacy and respect for sovereignty, not unilateral force, that can best solve disputes like this in the 21st century.”
But senior state department officials say they’ve seen little sign that Putin will de-escalate the situation.
In a rambling press conference on Tuesday morning, Putin broke his silence and tried to downplay Russia’s intentions to use force. Putin also denied reports that Russian soldiers had occupied Crimea, calling them local self-defense forces, and said he doesn’t need to send troops into Ukraine – at least not yet.
“There is not a need to do that now,” he said, but noted that Russia still reserves the right to use “all means” necessary to protect Russians and the “legitimate” president of the nation, Viktor Yanukovych, who fled Ukraine.
For weeks the country had already been embroiled crisis and bloody protests, brought on by Yanukovych's decision in November to turn down a European Union trade agreement and instead sign on to an alliance with Russia.
Putin on Tuesday called the protests a military coup. He also made no mention of the estimated 16,000 Russian troops thought to be in the peninsula of Crimea already, but did separately order Russian troops currently at the border of Ukraine to return to their bases.
Hours later, the White House announced that they’d push for a $1 billion loan guarantees aid package to help rebuild Ukraine. In a statement released Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew pledged that the U.S. would offer technical help to Ukraine’s central bank and help in executing free and fair elections.
"The U.S. Administration is working with Congress and the Government of Ukraine to provide $1 billion in loan guarantees, the proceeds of which will be aimed at protecting the most vulnerable Ukrainian households from the impact of the needed economic adjustment,” Lew said in the statement.
In his address, Putin skewered the protesters as “neo-Nazis” and “anti-Semites” and said that if Russia did use force, he believed that Ukrainian and Russian military force would not be fighting each other and instead would be on the same side.
Putin also criticized the U.S. during the address.
“Our partners, especially in the U.S., they always very clearly and distinctly are pursuing their own geopolitical interests persistently and then use the very famous phrase: ‘those who aren’t with us, are against us’, are dragging the rest of the world with them,” Putin said according to the NBC translation.
Russia first agreed to Ukraine’s independence—and its sovereignty of Crimea—in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by Russia, the U.S., United Kingdom, and Ukraine.