Russian President Vladimir Putin rebuffed a warning from US President Barack Obama over Moscow’s military intervention in Crimea, saying on Friday that Russia could not ignore calls for help from Russian speakers in Ukraine.
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 Crimea regions.”
“Russia cannot ignore calls for help and it acts accordingly, in full compliance with international law,” Putin said.
Ukraine’s border guards said Moscow had poured troops into its southern peninsula, where Russian forces have seized control.
Serhiy Astakhov, an aide to the commander of Ukraine’s border guards, said there were now 30,000 Russian soldiers in Crimea, compared with 11,000 permanently based with the Russian Black Sea fleet in the port of Sevastopol before the crisis.
The most serious east-west confrontation since the end of the Cold War — resulting from the overthrow last month of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych 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.
EU leaders and Obama denounced the referendum as illegitimate, saying it would violate Ukraine’s constitution.
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 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
China, often a Russian ally in blocking Western moves in the UN 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.
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 into account Russia’s legitimate interests in the region.
Putin was defiant on Ukraine, where he said the pro-Russian Yanukovych had been ousted in an “anti-constitutional coup.”
However, he underlined what he called “the paramount importance 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.
The EU welcomed Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to an emergency summit, even though Kiev is neither a member nor a recognized candidate to join the bloc, and agreed to accelerate the signing of the political parts of an agreement on closer ties before Ukraine’s May 25 elections.
The European Commission said Ukraine could receive up to 11 billion euros (US$15.27 billion) in the next couple of years, provided it reaches an agreement with the IMF, which typically requires painful economic reforms, such as 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 Yanukovych said they did not believe Crimea would be allowed to secede.