Secretary of State Kerry to head to Ukraine

McClatchy Washington BureauMarch 2, 2014 

The Obama administration said Sunday that Russian forces have "complete operational control" of the Crimean peninsula and that Secretary of State John Kerry will head to Kiev on Tuesday to meet with senior representatives of Ukraine’s new government.

Kerry will "reaffirm the United States' strong support for Ukrainian sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and the right of the Ukrainian people to determine their own future, without outside interference or provocation," the State Department said in a statement.

News of Kerry's trip came as President Barack Obama discussed Russia's move into Ukraine with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.

"The president's point in all of his calls has been to underscore the complete illegitimacy of Russia's intervention in Crimea and Ukraine," a senior administration official told reporters.

Russia has moved more than 6,000 airborne and naval troops into the Crimean peninsula, another senior administration official said.

Administration officials say they're reviewing "all economic and trade cooperation" with the Russian Federation and will cancel next week's planned trade talks with Russia, as well as a Russian visit to the U.S. for talks about cooperation in international energy markets.

The White House said the leaders "expressed their grave concern" over what they called Russia’s "clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity" and called for immediate talks between Ukraine and Russia.

They also pledged to work on a financial assistance package for Ukraine to help it stabilize its economy.

Administration officials are looking to isolate Russia internationally so as to ensure "political and economic costs," as well as deliver a message that the U.S. is supporting Ukraine. The U.S. is also looking to offer an "off-ramp" to Putin, should Russia change course.

Obama told Putin there were "other ways" to address his concerns, including talks with Ukrainian officials and that there was monitoring through the United Nations or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"I would say Putin did not slam the door on that," the official said, adding there was "agreement to continue to discuss."

The administration noted a "very strong statement" from the North Atlantic Council in which all 28 members condemned Russian action and called for a pullback, and said it expects a similar statement from NATO.

The U.S. has already said it will suspend preparations for the June G-8 summit in Sochi, along with Canada, the United Kingdom and France.

And the official said it is "looking with allies and partners" at options to curtail its economic and trade relationship with Russia, looking at pressuring "individuals who may have been responsible" in order to "make it clear how we feel about this."

The administration is also deploying monitoring and observation teams. Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland plans to attend an Organization for Security and Cooperation meeting in Vienna and the administration is looking at putting monitors into eastern Ukraine and propose an OSCE mission that could replace Russian military forces "if the Russians can be persuaded to pull back."

At the Ukrainians’ request, the U.S. is calling a meeting of the parties who agreed in 1994 when Ukraine made the decision to become a nonnuclear state to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The four signatories were the UK, the U.S., Russia, and Ukraine.

The official warned that the Russians "have badly miscalculated here" and that although Ukrainians have "showed marked restraint" to not show force, that "the longer this situation goes on, the more delicate it becomes."

The official derided Russia's action as "distinctly 19th and 20th century decisions" made by President Vladmimir Putin to address problems – "deploying military forces rather than negotiating, rather than talking.

"What he needs to understand is that in terms of his economy, he lives in the 21st century world, an interdependent world," the official said, noting the Russian ruble "has taken a significant hit" and that the Russian economy depends on good trade relations which will "be very difficult to maintain" with troops in Ukraine.

U.S. officials said there's "absolutely no evidence" that Russians are being targeted, as Putin claims.

The administration official said there is an upcoming naval event that the U.S. intends to cancel and that events and meetings will be "canceled until they make the right decision."

Administration officials said they're focused on political, economic and diplomatic options -- not military.

"Our goal is to uphold the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, not to have a military escalation," the official said.

Administration officials said they didn't expect the Ukraine flare up to affect efforts to persuade Iran to give up nuclear weapons.

"Russia, like every other world power at the table, has an interest in nonproliferation and not seeing an escalation into conflict in the Persian Gulf," the official said.

And in Syria, U.S. officials said Russia has not cooperated with the U.S. from the start, but for ridding the country of chemical weapons.

"Clearly President Putin has invested his own personal prestige in the issue, and they have an interest in seeing chemical weapons removed from Syria, given their concerns about the extremist threat," the official said.

Administration officials wouldn't comment on whether targeted sanctions on companies and senior individuals are under consideration, but noted that Russian banks would be potentially vulnerable.

Asked whether Putin is listening to the White House, officials delivered a bit of a dig at Obama's predeccessor, saying "we in this administration have made it a practice to not look into Vladimir Putin’s soul, so I can’t speak for him."

Administration officials pushed back against whether -- after deciding against a military strike in Syria -- Obama has a credibility problem with foreign leaders, who don't believe his threats.

"The credibility of the president is manifested in how many leaders and how many countries are joining with us and standing with us in rejecting this Russian action," the official said, noting that Russia "has done this before too. I’m sure they were warned not to do what they did in Georgia in 2008, and they did. So this is not the first time in history that there has been an act of an aggression by a foreign leader or a Russian leader."

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