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U.S. warns Russia amid military movements inside Ukraine

By CBS/Wire Services 4:24 PM February 28, 2014

President says there will be costs to any Russian military intervention in the Ukraine

Last Updated Feb 28, 2014 4:50 PM EST

WASHINGTON - Russian forces moved into the Crimea on Friday, Ukrainian officials said, escalating tensions and prompting President Obama to warn against a military intervention.

“The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine,” Obama said Friday.

He said that the United States was deeply concerned about the reports of Russian military movements inside of Ukraine.

He noted Russia’s historic relationship with Ukraine and the presence of a Russian military facility in Crimea, and added: “But 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. It would be a clear violation of Russia’s commitment to respect the independence and sovereignty and borders of Ukraine, and of international laws.”

Friday afternoon a U.S. official confirmed to CBS News that there were “indications of Russian air and naval movements in and into Crimea.”

It was unclear whether these movements were consistent with Russia’s treaty rights in the Crimea, but one U.S. official said that it would be “a stretch” for Russia to claim they were merely exercising their rights.

“This is history being made,” he said.

A spokesman for the Ukrainian border service said Friday that eight Russian transport planes had landed in Crimea with unknown cargo.

Serhiy Astakhov told The Associated Press that the Il-76 planes arrived unexpectedly Friday and were given permission to land, one after the other, at Gvardeiskoye air base, north of the regional capital, Simferopol.

Astakhov said the people in the planes refused to identify themselves and waved off customs officials, saying they didn’t require their services.

Earlier Friday, Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador said he had told the U.N. Security Council that Russian military helicopters and transport planes were entering his country and that Russian armed forces had seized Crimea’s main airport.

Russia’s Interfax agency cited Serhyi Kunitsyn, a Ukraine presidential envoy to Crimea, telling ATR television that 13 Russian planes carrying 150 Russian troops each landed at Gvardeiskoye air base. That report could not be confirmed.

On Friday, as pro-Russia gunmen patrolled Crimean streets in armored vehicles and took over airports there Ukraine’s pro-Western interim authorities accused Moscow of invading their country.

Ukraine’s acting president accused Russia of open aggression and said it was provoking his country in the same way as it had Georgia before going to war in 2008.

Urging Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop “provocations” in Crimea, Oleksander Turchinov recalled Russia’s intervention in Georgia over breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have large ethnic Russian populations.

“The Ukrainian army will fulfill its obligations but it will not give in to provocations,” Turchinov said.

Secretary of State John Kerry and White House spokesman Jay Carney both said any Russian military intervention in Ukraine would be a “grave mistake” and that the United States was watching closely to see if Russian activity was “crossing a line.”

Carney said U.S. officials are seeking clarification on the origin of the pro-Russia gunmen.

Kerry said he called Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for the second time in two days to press the Kremlin to keep its promise to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Kerry told reporters that Lavrov had once again repeated Putin’s pledge to do that while also pointing out that Russia has broad interests in Ukraine, including the major naval base in Crimea.

Kerry and Lavrov are expected to meet Thursday about Ukraine and Syria on the sidelines of a Libya summit in Rome.

But Kerry, in comments that highlighted Washington’s rising suspicion of Moscow, said the U.S. is watching to see if Russian activity in Crimea “might be crossing a line in any way.”

“While we were told that they are not engaging in any violation of the sovereignty and do not intend to, I nevertheless made it clear that that could be misinterpreted at this moment,” Kerry said. “There are enough tensions that it is important for everybody to be extremely careful not to inflame the situation and not send the wrong messages.”

Ukraine, meanwhile, accused Russia of a “military invasion and occupation,” saying Russian troops have taken up positions around a coast guard base and two airports in Crimea.

Ukraine International Airlines said it had canceled flights to and from the Simferopol airport on Friday evening and Saturday because of the closure of the airspace over Crimea. The announcement did not say who had ordered the closure.

A woman answering the Simferopol airport passenger help line said the airport was not closed but that all flights were canceled “due to the situation in Crimea.”

The country’s main telecommunications company said landlines and some Internet services were down after fiber optic cables were tampered with.

Kerry reiterated the U.S. view that Russian military intervention in Ukraine following the ouster of the country’s Russia-backed leader would run counter to Russia’s self-professed opposition to such operations in other countries, such as Libya and Syria.

And Kerry noted that, during his call with Lavrov, fugitive Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was holding a news conference in southern Russia in which he said he was not asking Moscow for military assistance and called military action “unacceptable.”

In his appearance before reporters, however, Yanukovych, who still regards himself the president, also vowed to “keep fighting for the future of Ukraine” and blamed the United States and the West for encouraging the rebellion that forced him to flee last weekend.

The White House is already working with the country’s new prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and a high-ranking U.S. diplomat will head to Kiev soon and will consult with the Europeans and the International Monetary Fund to try to quickly stabilize the young government.

Any Russian military incursion in Crimea would dramatically raise the stakes in Ukraine, which is at the center of what many see as a tug of war between East and West.

One of the catalysts for massive demonstrations that led to Yanukovych’s ouster was his rejection of a partnership agreement with the European Union in favor of historical ties with Moscow. That EU agreement would have paved the way for Ukraine’s greater integration with the West, including potential affiliation with NATO, something to which Russia strongly objects for former Warsaw Pact members.

Underscoring U.S. concerns are memories of the conflict in Georgia, where Russian troops remain in two disputed enclaves in violation of a 2008 cease-fire.

Amid the heightened tensions over Ukraine, the United States this week twice renewed its objections to the Russian military presence in Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions.

Kerry and other senior U.S. officials have tried without success to dispel widespread sentiment in Russia that the United States and Europe are trying to pry Ukraine out from under Russian influence. They have insisted repeatedly that Ukraine is not a “zero-sum game” in which one side – Russia or the West – wins and the other loses.

Their argument, though, seems to be falling on deaf ears in Moscow, where Russian officials have been accusing the United States and its allies of meddling in Ukraine, fomenting anti-Russia sentiment and actively encouraging Kiev’s Western aspirations at the expense of its historical connections.

On Friday, Kerry said issues like EU or NATO partnerships should be put on the back burner in order to concentrate on reducing tensions and setting up a democratic transition.

“‘We do not want to get caught up in the historical or the more current tensions over association agreements or NATO or other kinds of things,” he said. “There’s a place for that down the road if Ukrainians want to have that debate, but we do not believe that that should be part of what is happening now. Now is time for transition and for respect for the pluralism and diversity and democracy that the people Ukraine want.”

In a bid to shore up Ukraine’s fledgling administration, the IMF has said it is “ready to respond” to Ukraine’s bid for financial assistance; Ukraine’s finance ministry has said it needs $35 billion over the next two years to avoid default.

The European Union is also considering emergency loans for a country that is the chief conduit of Russian natural gas to western Europe.

And Putin asked his government to “hold consultations with foreign partners including the IMF and the G8 nations to provide financial aid to Ukraine.”

CBS/Wire Services

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