WASHINGTON — Between a White House film festival and “happy hour” at the Democratic National Committee’s winter meeting Friday, President Obama made an unexpected appearance to address the crisis that had been spinning out of control all day with the incursion of Russian forces into the Crimean peninsula.
The House Intelligence Committee chairman said after Obama’s speech, though, that the situation has devolved into full Russian control of the southern tip of Ukraine.
Obama noted that he spoke “several days ago” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, before a week that saw ousted President Viktor Yanukovych get safe haven in Russia and armed forces from the federation surrounding Ukrainian airports and news outlets.
“We are now deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine,” Obama said in the press briefing room, adding that a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty “would represent a profound interference in matters that must be determined by the Ukrainian people.”
“It would be a clear violation of Russia’s commit to respect the independence and sovereignty and borders of Ukraine, and of international laws. And just days after the world came to Russia for the Olympic games, it would invite the condemnation of nations around the world,” he continued. “And indeed, the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.”
The president added that Vice President Joe Biden is still the one carrying on direct talks with Ukrainian leaders, including a call today to the prime minister.
The White House said Biden and Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk talked about the “important opportunity not only to bring peace, stability, and unity to Ukraine, but also to restore the faith of all of the Ukrainian people in their country’s democratic institutions as they prepare for new elections in May.”
“The Vice President reassured the Prime Minister that the United States will offer its full support as Ukraine undertakes the reforms necessary to return to economic health, pursue reconciliation, uphold its international obligations, and seek open and constructive relationships with all its neighbors.”
After heading over to the Capital Hilton for the DNC meeting, Obama faced a heckler at the DNC who shouted, “Tell us about your plan for nuclear war with Russia!” Obama shot back, “What the heck are you talking about?”
But even as Obama sought to tamp down speculation that a new Cold War was brewing, lawmakers in Washington grew frustrated with an administration that has appeared a day or more behind of rapidly unfolding events and that laid the ground for a consequence-free “reset” Russia with the hazy Syria red line.
“Crisis presents opptnty to truly reset our relationship w Russia by standing up for the right of the Ukrainian people to form new democracy,” tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the unfolding events and the White House reaction underscores that Obama “has a bit been naive about Vladimir Putin and his ambitions.”
“They have taken control of the airport, the two airports and these people are paramilitaries,” McCain said. “…It’s not going to be Russian tanks. It’s going to be Russian special forces, special operations people, FSB, that will basically be taking over the country.”
“And when the president said that he told Putin there would be costs, I hope he was specific in some of those costs, because there are a number of costs” — ideally, the senator said, “economic sanctions that would be far-reaching” and a move to “restart our missile defense capabilities in the Czech Republic that we canceled.”
“Another would be to expedite membership of Georgia into NATO. And so there’s a number of other actions we could take and obviously we’re not going to be sending troops anywhere or armed conflict,” McCain continued. “But I really believe that when Vladimir Putin looks around the world, sees what happened in Syria when the president — when the red line turned pink and the president didn’t act, our acquiescence to their occupation of Georgia, the — all of the actions that have to do and indicate a decline of the United States of America, I think he’s emboldened and he’s acting.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who spent the early afternoon with a Venezuelan flag draped around his neck as he met with opponents of socialist President Nicolas Maduro in Doral, Fla., said “the U.S. cannot accept Russian aggression against a neighbor and United Nations member in blatant violation of international law.”
“Now is the time for U.S. leadership. The U.S. and the European Union should take meaningful measures to demonstrate to the Russian government that military action against Ukraine is intolerable and will carry significant consequences for Moscow,” Rubio said in a statement after Obama’s comments. “The revolution in Ukraine has inspired people across the world, including, I believe, the hundreds of thousands of Russians who have taken to the streets in recent years demanding their own freedom. Tyrants like Vladimir Putin may threaten and intimidate, but the clear arc of history favors people’s universal desire to be free.”
As if on cue, a Russian court placed charismatic opposition leader Alexei Navalny under house arrest Friday, including in the order that he would be banned from any Internet access so he couldn’t rally supporters .
The entire Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), sent Obama a letter stressing that “through its actions and rhetoric, the Russian government is aggressively acting to exploit regional, cultural, and linguistic schisms to actively undermine Ukraine’s unity.”
“Moscow’s goals appear to be two: destabilize the Ukrainian government while it struggles to cope with former President Yanukovych’s corrupt mismanagement of their economy; and use provocative and dangerous tactics to extend their control on the ground,” the letter states. “…Russian coercion is expanding beyond the economic sphere. We do not seek confrontation with President Putin and his government, but simply to ensure that Russia abides by its commitments and adheres to core principles of international law.”
“We are prepared to work with your Administration to reinforce your efforts by authorizing U.S. loan guarantees to Ukraine and increasing assistance to facilitate a peaceful transition of power,” the lawmakers continued. “We also believe that the U.S. should make use of the tools at its disposal, including targeted sanctions; and asset recovery targeting corruption, to dissuade individuals who would foment unrest to undermine Ukraine’s territorial integrity or employ coercive economic measures against the Ukrainian people and the new Ukrainian government.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a member of the committee, warned in his own statement that “Russian intervention in Ukraine would be dangerous for both nations, and for the rest of the world.”
“We live in an interconnected world and the United States has a vital role in the stability of that world,” said the senator who usually tends toward a more isolationist foreign policy. “The United States should make it abundantly clear to Russia that we expect them to honor the December 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which the U.S., Russia, and the United Kingdom reaffirmed their commitment ‘to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.’ Russia should also be reminded that stability and territorial integrity go hand in hand with prosperity.”
“Economic incentives align against Russian military involvement in Ukraine,” Paul continued. “Russia, which has begun to experience the benefits of expanded trade with World Trade Organization accession, should think long and hard about honoring their treaty obligations and fostering the stability that creates prosperity for its citizens.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said “if we were serious about standing up to Putin’s power grab, we would immediately suspend Russian membership in the Group of Eight (G8), which should consist of nations that can contribute to a civilized order.”
“And if the Russians persist in this aggressive action, we should look into additional measures such as suspension from the World Trade Organization and even the United Nations Security Council,” Cruz added.
As new images of tanks on the ground in the Crimea circulated in Washington on Friday evening, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) sounded the alarm that this was more than a slight incursion.
“It appears that the Russian military now controls the Crimean peninsula,” Rogers said. “This aggression is a threat not only to Ukraine, but to regional peace and stability. Russia’s latest action is yet another indicator that Vladimir Putin’s hegemonic ambitions threaten U.S. interests and allies around the world.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), a Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said the administration can start taking a stand by acknowledging that Yanukovych is no longer president, something the White House has been prodded on but won’t go all the way to say that he’s been deposed.
“I think we do need to be more forceful in the sense that I think we should recognize those who are now running the Ukraine. I think we should swiftly move to approve some bridge loans and immediate financial assistance until we can get the IMF fully engaged, which is a longer process,” Schiff told MSNBC.
Schiff said he expected “strong bipartisan support” in Congress for increased Ukraine aid.
“There are a lot of members on both sides of the aisle that realize, you know, this is a critical battleground in the war of ideas and it’s not only going to help determine what kind of future the Ukraine has, whether they can, like their neighbor in Poland, have a prosperous economy and open society, or whether they recede back to what Russia is starting to look like — increasingly authoritarian with crackdowns on speech and journalism and rights of assembly,” he said.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said “in recent years, many of our partners and allies have feared our acquiescence and, in some cases, silence in the face of Russia’s systemic and persistent meddling in the affairs of its neighbors, especially Georgia and Moldova, would embolden Russia to take additional and escalatory aggressive action. ”
“Those fears have been confirmed today. Both the administration and the European Union have a responsibility to work together to maximize the economic and political pressure on Russia to withdraw its troops and work in a constructive manner to promote an inclusive government in Ukraine and to stabilize the Ukrainian economy,” Boehner said. “The House of Representatives stands with the people of Ukraine during these difficult days and remains committed to working with the administration to provide the necessary support Ukraine needs right now.”
Secretary of State John Kerry said he spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov today “about the reports we are getting about Russian presence and what it may be choosing to do.”
“And while we were told that they are not engaging in any violation of the sovereignty and do not intend to, I nevertheless made it clear that that could be misinterpreted at this moment, and that there are enough tensions that it is important for everybody to be extremely careful not to inflame the situation and not to send the wrong messages,” Kerry said.
The State Department warned against all non-essential travel to Ukraine, especially the Crimean peninsula.
“The new government needs to continue its outreach to minority groups in order to help calm the situation and affirm its commitment to protecting minority rights,” Ambassador Samantha Power said at the United Nations. “Clearly this is a message that needs especially to be heard in the Crimea, where we have seen actions and heard rhetoric that could threaten Ukraine’s unity and stability.”