President Obama on Friday afternoon put Russia on notice that any military action inside of Ukraine will carry “costs,” promising the U.S. and its allies in the international community will not allow Moscow to violate the sovereignty of its neighbor.
But the president’s threat was vague and by no means indicated the U.S. is prepared to intervene militarily in a situation that is deteriorating by the hour.
“Any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia, or Europe. It would represent a profound interference in matters that must be determined by the Ukrainian people,” Mr. Obama said in a hastily called address inside the White House press briefing room. “It would be a clear violation of Russia’s commitment to respect the independence, sovereignty and borders of Ukraine, and of international law. And just days after the world came to Russia for the Olympic games, it would invite the condemnation of nations around the world. And indeed the United States will stand with the international community in affirming there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.”
Mr. Obama also said his administration remains in regular communication with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior officials in Moscow.
The president’s comments come as the chaotic situation in Ukraine is reaching a fever pitch, with fears rising that Russia may launch an all-out invasion in an effort to annex parts of the troubled country.
Earlier Friday, Ukrainian officials accused Russian forces of trying to seize two airports in Crimea. The armed men reportedly wore uniforms with no insignia.
Russian armored personnel carriers also are on their way to or already have arrived in Crimea, a move Ukrainian officials called “a military invasion and occupation.”
Russians armed with rifles and wearing military uniforms stormed into Crimea’s main airport and took up positions on Friday, and about 2,000 armed Russians reportedly were airlifted into the area.
Those provocative moves were the latest incidents in a string of increased Russian aggression. While the White House has insisted the U.S. and Russia aren’t going to engage in a Cold War-era geopolitical “chess match,” it appears Mr. Putin is intent on recapturing at least parts of Ukraine, which formerly was a part of the Soviet Union.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a leading voice on foreign policy and national security issues, said Mr. Putin’s ultimate goal is the restoration of the old Soviet bloc, and the U.S. must recognize that fact when dealing with him.
“All of his actions for years have indicated his desire to rebuild the Russian empire … it’s pretty clear that maybe the president has been a bit naive about Vladimir Putin and his ambitions. What we are seeing now is Vladimir Putin’s commitment and absolute belief that Ukraine is part of Russia. And he’s not going to let it go,” Mr. McCain told CNN just after Mr. Obama’s remarks. “And that is something we’re going to have to understand in our relations with Vladimir Putin.”
The U.S.-Russia standoff over Ukraine is the latest indication that the relationship between Washington and Moscow quickly is doing downhill. The two nations remain at odds over the civil war in Syria, with Russia continuing to back the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad even as it slaughters its own people and denies the delivery of humanitarian aid to starving civilians.
Russia also provoked the U.S. by granting asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, who revealed secrets about American surveillance and data-collection programs.
While those incidents hurt U.S.-Russian relations, the situation in Ukraine may further polarize the two former Cold War foes.
Hostile actions in Ukraine by Russia, or forces identifying with Mr. Putin’s government, began in earnest earlier this week.
On Thursday, gunmen stormed a compound in Crimea, a region of Ukraine which includes a large ethnic Russian population, and hoisted a Russian flag.
Russian military forces also have held exercises on the Ukrainian border, and Russian jets have patrolled the skies in the same areas.
Meanwhile, ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych — who sparked protests among his own people by accepting large Russian loans — is holed up in Russia. He made a public address Friday and again claimed to be the legitimate elected leader of his country.
In the U.S., top lawmakers and analysts believe Russia’s ultimate aim is to annex Crimea.
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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