After an hour-long telephone call, Putin said in a statement that
Moscow and Washington were still far apart on the situation in the
former Soviet republic, where he said the new authorities had taken
"absolutely illegitimate decisions on the eastern, southeastern and
"Russia cannot ignore calls for help and it acts accordingly, in
full compliance with international law," Putin said.
The most serious east-west confrontation since the end of the Cold
War — resulting from the overthrow last month of President Viktor
Yanukovich after violent protests in Kiev — escalated on Thursday
when Crimea's parliament, dominated by ethnic Russians, voted to
join Russia. The region's government set a referendum for March 16 — in just nine days' time.
European Union leaders and Obama denounced the referendum as
illegitimate, saying it would violate Ukraine's constitution.
The head of Russia's upper house of parliament said after meeting
visiting Crimean lawmakers on Friday that Crimea had a right to
self-determination, and ruled out any risk of war between "the two
Before calling Putin, Obama announced the first sanctions against
Russia since the start of the crisis, ordering visa bans and asset
freezes against so far unidentified persons deemed responsible for
threatening Ukraine's sovereignty.
Japan endorsed the Western position that the actions of Russia,
whose forces have seized control of the Crimean peninsula,
constitute "a threat to international peace and security", after
Obama spoke to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
China, often a Russian ally in blocking Western moves in the U.N.
Security Council, was more cautious, saying that economic sanctions
were not the best way to solve the crisis and avoiding comment on
the legality of a Crimean referendum on secession.
The EU, Russia's biggest economic partner and energy customer,
adopted a three-stage plan to try to force a negotiated solution but
stopped short of immediate sanctions.
Brussels and Washington also rushed to strengthen the new
authorities in economically shattered Ukraine, announcing both
political and financial assistance.
Promises of billions of dollars in Western aid for the Kiev
government, and the perception that Russian troops are not likely to
go beyond Crimea into other parts of Ukraine, have helped reverse a
rout in the local hryvnia currency.
In the past two days it has traded above 9.0 to the dollar for the
first time since the Crimea crisis began last week. Local dealers
said emergency currency restrictions imposed last week were also
supporting the hryvnia.
In their telephone call, Obama said he urged Putin to accept the
terms of a potential diplomatic solution to the dispute over Crimea
that would take account of Russia's legitimate interests in the
Putin was defiant on Ukraine, where he said the pro-Russian
Yanukovich had been ousted in an "anti-constitutional coup". But he
underlined what he called "the paramount important of
Russian-American relations to ensure stability and security in the
world", the Kremlin said.
"These relations should not be sacrificed for individual
differences, albeit very important ones, over international
problems," Putin said.
He maintained Moscow was not behind the seizure of Crimea, home of
Russia's Black Sea Fleet. Russia says the troops without insignia
that have surround Ukrainian bases are "local self-defense units".
The West has ridiculed this argument.
The 28-nation EU welcomed Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk
to an emergency summit, even though Kiev is neither a member nor a
recognized candidate to join the bloc, and agreed to bring forward
the signing of the political parts of an agreement on closer ties
before Ukraine's May 25 elections.
Yatseniuk said after returning to Ukraine that no one in the
civilized world would recognize the result of the "so-called
referendum" in Crimea. He repeated Kiev's willingness to negotiate
with Russia and said he had requested a telephone call with Russian
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
[to top of second column]
The European Commission said Ukraine could receive up to 11 billion
euros ($15 billion) in the next couple of years provided it reaches
agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which requires
painful economic reforms like ending gas subsidies.
Despite Putin's tough words, demonstrators who have remained
encamped in Kiev's central Independence Square to defend the
revolution that ousted Yanukovich said they did not believe Crimea
would be allowed to secede.
Some said they were willing to go to war with Russia, despite the
mismatch between the two countries' armed forces.
"We are optimists. Crimea will stand with us and we will fight for
it," said Taras Yurkiv, 35, from the eastern city of Lviv. "How we
will fight depends on the decisions of our leadership. If necessary,
we will go with force. If you want peace, you must prepare for war."
Alexander Zaporozhets, 40, from central Ukraine's Kirovograd region,
put his faith in international pressure.
"I don't think the Russians will be allowed to take Crimea from us:
you can't behave like that to an independent state. We have the
support of the whole world. But I think we are losing time. While
the Russians are preparing, we are just talking."
On the ground in Crimea, the situation was calm although 35 unarmed
military observers dispatched by the pan-European Organisation for
Security and Cooperation in Europe were denied entry into the
peninsula on Thursday after landing in the southern Ukrainian port
A U.N. special envoy who traveled to the regional capital Simferopol
on Tuesday was surrounded by pro-Russian protesters, some of them
armed, and forced to leave on Tuesday. The United Nations said it
had sent its assistant secretary-general for human rights, Ivan
Simonovic, to Kiev to conduct a preliminary humans rights
Ukrainian television was switched off in Crimea on Thursday and
replaced with Russian state channels.
The streets largely belong to people who support Moscow's rule, some
of whom have become increasingly aggressive in the past week,
harassing journalists and occasional pro-Kiev protesters.
Part of the Crimea's 2 million population opposes Moscow's rule,
including members of the region's ethnic Russian majority. The last
time Crimeans were asked, in 1991, they voted narrowly for
independence along with the rest of Ukraine.
"This announcement that we are already part of Russia provokes
nothing but tears," said Tatyana, 41, an ethnic Russian. "With all
these soldiers here, it is like we are living in a zoo. Everyone
fully understands this is an occupation."
(Additional reporting by Luke Baker and Martin Santa in Brussels,
Steve Holland and Jeff Mason in Washington, Lina Kushch in Donetsk
and Pavel Polityuk in Kiev; writing by Paul Taylor; editing by Giles Elgood)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.