KIEV: U.S. President Barack Obama told Russia Friday to pull its troops back from Ukraine and stop escalating a crisis that has already redrawn the map of Europe amid one of the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.
Obama’s blunt message added further urgency to a standoff that has seen NATO reinforce positions along Russia’s frontier in response to anxiety among the ex-Soviet satellite nations about the Kremlin’s new expansionist mood.
Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday for the first time confirmed that his forces were directly involved in this month’s military intervention in Crimea – the initial step of what the new pro-Western leaders in Kiev fear is a plan to annex an even greater part of Ukraine.
Putin’s defense minister has assured Washington that Russia had no desire to push forces beyond the Black Sea peninsula it seized after last month’s fall of a Moscow-backed regime that kept Ukraine firmly tied to the Kremlin.
But Obama told the U.S. broadcaster CBS that “it is well-known and well-acknowledged that you have seen a range of [Russian] troops massing along that border under the guise of military exercises.”
A top security official in Kiev this week estimated there were now 100,000 Russian soldiers positioned around Ukraine – a figure neither confirmed nor denied by Moscow.
Obama said the Russian military buildup “may simply be an effort to intimidate Ukraine or it may be that they have got additional plans.”
And he insisted that Russia needed “to move back those troops and to begin negotiations directly with the Ukrainian government, as well as the international community.”
Putin has refused to do either and has instead taken quick steps to absorb Crimea – a move declared illegitimate by a nonbinding U.N. General Assembly referendum Thursday that highlighted Russia’s growing isolation on the global stage.
The Kremlin chief – more popular at home now than at any point since his 2012 election to a third term – added to the patriotic fervour sweeping Russia by congratulating the troops involved in the Crimea swoop.
“The recent events in Crimea were a serious test. They demonstrated the new capacities of our armed forces in terms of quality and the high moral spirit of the personnel,” Putin said at a televised military ceremony.
He then thanked the “commanders and servicemen of the Black Sea Fleet and other units deployed in Crimea for their restraint and personal courage.”
The seemingly offhand remark carried great weight because Putin had earlier insisted that only “local self-defense forces” were involved in the rapid succession of raids on Ukraine’s army and naval installations.
In Washington, U.S. lawmakers overwhelmingly approved aid to Ukraine and sanctions on Russia, although the measure will not become law until at least next week, congressional aides said.
The House of Representatives left for the weekend without approving a final version of the legislation. Aides said it would be considered first thing when members return to Washington Tuesday, April 1.
The legislation supports $1 billion in loan guarantees for Kiev, provides $150 billion in aid to Ukraine and surrounding countries and imposes sanctions on Russians and Ukrainians over Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The United States and the EU have imposed two rounds of visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials, lawmakers and other allies of Putin to punish Moscow for what Western states say is the illegal seizure of Crimea.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Friday Moscow has retaliated against expanded sanctions, but without naming any U.S. or European Union officials affected.
“Naturally, such actions cannot be left without a reaction,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement.
“The Russian side has taken measures in response, which in many ways mirror [the Western sanctions],” Lukashevich added.
State-run news agency RIA quoted an unidentified high-level official as saying the new figures on Moscow’s blacklist would find out they were barred from entry “when they [try to] cross the Russia border.”
Some of the 11 U.S. officials and lawmakers named on an initial Russian blacklist announced last week treated the idea of being barred from Russia with derisive sarcasm. Senator John McCain said it meant his “spring break in Siberia is off.”
The interim leaders in Kiev have been trying to pull Ukraine out of its worst post-Soviet crisis by securing an urgent economic rescue package from the West and setting the stage for snap presidential polls on May 25 that could unite the culturally splintered nation behind one democratically elected leader.
They managed in the first task on Thursday by winning an IMF-backed pledge of $27 billion in international aid over the next two years.