Emilio Morenatti / AP)
Washington— U.S. officials said Friday that President Barack Obama may scrap plans to attend an international summit in Russia this summer and could also halt discussions on deepening trade ties with Moscow, raising specific possible consequences if Russia should intervene in Ukraine.
Obama himself bluntly warned of unspecified “costs” for Russia.
“Any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing,” Obama declared. Such action by Russia would represent a “profound interference” in matters that must be decided by the Ukrainian people, he said.
Armed men took control of key airports in Crimea on Friday and Russian transport planes flew into the strategic region, Ukrainian officials said, an ominous sign of the Kremlin’s iron hand in Ukraine.
As Obama prepared to speak early Friday evening in Washington, a spokesman for the Ukrainian border service said eight Russian transport planes had landed with unknown cargo in Crimea. 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.
It’s unclear whether the administration’s threats to pull trade talks or cancel presidential travel will have any impact on Russia’s calculations. Obama canceled a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last year after Russia granted asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, though Obama still attended a separate international meeting in Russia.
Putin is scheduled to host the Group of Eight economic summit in June in Sochi, the site of the recently completed Winter Olympics. The administration official said the U.S. was in discussions about the summit with European partners and it was difficult to see how some of those leaders would attend if Russia had forces in Crimea. The official was not authorized to discuss the situation by name and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Obama called on Russia to respect the independence and territory of Ukraine and not try to take advantage of its neighbor, which is undergoing political upheaval.
“Just days after the world came to Russia for the Olympic Games, that would invite the condemnation of nations around the world,” Obama said. “The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.”
Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador said Friday that he told the U.N. Security Council that Russian military helicopters and transport planes are entering his country and that Russian armed forces seized Crimea’s main airport.
Obama noted that Russia has a historic relationship with Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, including cultural and economic ties and a Russian military facility in Crimea.
In recent conversations between U.S. and Russian officials, including a lengthy telephone conversation between Obama and Putin just last week, Obama said the U.S. has made clear to the Russians that they can be part of an international community’s effort to support the stability and success of Ukraine.
Earlier Friday, as pro-Russia gunmen patrolled Crimean streets in armored vehicles and took over airports there, Secretary of State John Kerry warned Moscow against military moves in Crimea that could further inflame tensions.
Kerry and White House spokesman Jay Carney both said any Russian military intervention would be a grave mistake and that the United States was watching closely.
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.
Lavrov repeated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pledge to do just that while also pointing out that Russia has broad interests in Ukraine, Kerry said.
The secretary of state said the U.S. was watching to see if Russian activity in Crimea “might be crossing a line in any way.” He added that the administration would be “very careful” in making judgments about that.
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 U.S. and the West for encouraging the rebellion that forced him to flee last weekend.
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.