Putin pushes Obama, hints at Ukraine invasion

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Russian president Vladimir Putin escalated his diplomatic challenge to President Barack Obama on Sunday, by declaring that the Ukrainian government was allowing ethnic Russians to be terrorized.

Obama had called Putin to reject a Putin-backed referendum in the Crimea that was intended to validate Russia’s takeover of the Russian-majority peninsula.

Putin rejected Obama’s complaints, said Crimea had the legal right to join Russia, and escalated the fight by saying that the Ukrainian government was allowing ethnic Russians to be terrorized.

“Putin drew attention to the inability and unwillingness of the current Kiev authorities to curb rampant ultra-nationalist and radical groups, destabilizing and terrorizing civilians, including Russian-speaking population and our compatriots,” said the statement from the Kremlin.

Putin’s aggressive stance heightens the possibility he is creating a pretext for Russian armored forces to invade and occupy the eastern sections of the Ukraine.

Those sections have a large majority of ethnic Russians, while western and central Ukraine are populated by ethnic Ukrainians.

On numerous occasions, Russia has invaded neighboring countries on the pretext of protecting Russians from attack.

Putin has created a painful political dilemma for Obama, who hoped in 2009 to inaugurate broad cooperation with Russia. Obama can continue trying to rally cautious European to impose tough sanctions on Russia. The sanctions might not stop Russia from absorbing the Crimea or occupying more slices of Ukraine, but they could allow Obama to save face.

Alternatively, he can lower the risk of being seen as ineffective by voters if he walks  away from the crisis and from Ukraine. He could disguise his retreat by switching the media’s attention to other issues, such as the 2014 midterm elections, or to Mideast truce talks.

Obama is not expected try a third option — reviving his recent criticism of Russia for its rejection of U.S.-style rights for gays. That criticism provoked Putin and most Russians — who are worried about their declining population — during the weeks prior to the Sochi Olympics in February.

An early March poll by NBC and The Wall Street Journal showed that Obama has only a 41 percent approval from Americans for his handling of foreign policy. Back in October 2012, he had an approval rating of 49 percent. The low rating drags his overall approval rating.

If the Ukraine crisis worsens, his approval rating may fall further, increasing the chance of a big GOP win in November.

So far, Obama is following both diplomatic tracks.

On Monday, the day after his phoned rebuke of Putin, Obama is expected to meet with the leader of the Arabs living around Israel’s capital on the Israeli side of the Jordan river. The meeting is part of Obama’s campaign to make Israel agree to the creation of an new Arab state on territory that is only a few miles from Israel’s major cities, coastline and airport — even before the Arabs finally agree among themselves that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state.

In the Sunday phone call, “Obama emphasized that the Crimean ‘referendum,’ which violates the Ukrainian constitution and occurred under duress of Russian military intervention, would never be recognized by the United States and the international community,” according to a White House statement.

“We are prepared to impose additional costs on Russia for its actions,” the statement said, likely indicating continued effort to establish significant economic and travel-related sanctions on Russian leaders and organizations.

But Putin embraced the results of the Sunday referendum in the Crimea, which showed that roughly 90 percent of Crimeans wished to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

“Putin stressed that its holding is fully consistent with international law and the U.N. Charter and … the inhabitants of the peninsula were guaranteed the possibility of free will and self-determination,” said a Kremlin statement.

Putin also justified the secession by citing the U.S. support for Kosovo, which broke away from Serbia in 1999 after U.S. airstrikes and NATO airstrikes on Serbian army units. Obama should “take into account, in particular, the famous Kosovo precedent,” according to the Kremlin statement.

On Sunday, Putin also told Angela Merkel, Germany’s president, that “Russia will respect the Crimean people’s choice,” according to a statement at the Kremlin’s website.

Obama’s phone call was his fourth with Putin since the crisis began.

So far, no significant sanctions have been imposed on Russia, partly because several European governments, including those Germany and the United Kingdom, are reliant on Russian natural gas or financial transactions.

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