As Russia announced that it was beginning military exercises on the border with Ukraine, President Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the rest of the international community issued threats and warnings intended to compel Russia to back off and to persuade the Crimean people to reverse course on a nationwide vote about seceding from Ukraine and rejoining Russia.
The Russian military exercises were widely seen as an intimidating show of force to Ukraine and the rest of the world. In addition, Russia sent six Su-27 jet fighters and three military transport planes to ally Belarus, in what is seen as a response to the U.S. and Poland conducting joint military exercises in Poland.
The flexing of military muscles across the globe has many observers worried about whether the Crimean dispute could lead to a major military crisis that few countries covet.
President Obama appeared at the White House yesterday alongside interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and said Washington “completely rejects” Crimea’s planned referendum Sunday on whether to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.
Obama said the vote, “patched together in a few weeks,” is a violation of international law.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appeared at a Congressional hearing today and outlined a “serious series of steps” that would be taken against Russia if the Crimean referendum passes on Sunday. Those steps include the suspension of preparations for the G8 Summit in Sochi, suspending talks on Russia joining the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and suspending visa and investment talks between Russia and the European Union.
Kerry is supposed to be meeting in London tomorrow with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to see if there’s any way to head off the sanctions. Lavrov said he had spoken by phone today with Kerry.
“If there is no sign of any capacity to be able to move forward and resolve this issue, there will be a very serious series of steps in Europe and here with respect to the options that are available to us,” Kerry said in testimony on the State Department’s 2015 budget request.
As for the referendum, Kerry said, “There is no justification, no legality to this referendum… It violates international law, it violates the UN charter, it violates the constitution of Ukraine, and I don’t think anybody can believe that a hastily put together, rushed referendum, taking place under the imprint of 20,000 plus troops and all that has happened, without debate, without opportunity, is a genuine referendum.”
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that there was “hardly any hope” for a diplomatic solution at this point if the referendum goes forward, according to the German news agency DPA.
He said the planned meeting between Kerry and Lavrov on Friday was “possibly the last chance.”
Merkel said Russia risks “massive” political and economic damage if it does not change course in the Ukraine crisis. She said Ukraine’s territorial integrity is “not up for discussion” in a speech to the German parliament. She also said the European Union will impose sanctions on Russia if it does not move to set up a contact group to discuss the Crimea crisis.
After hosting Ukraine Prime Minister Yatsenyuk at a bipartisan meeting on Capitol Hill, House Speaker John Boehner today urged the Senate to pass a House bill backing $1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine.