KIEV, Ukraine – As thousands of Russian and Ukrainian troops stare each other down in Ukraine’s strategic Crimean peninsula, the worlds-apart views from Moscow and Washington over the dangerous faceoff suggested Tuesday that a resolution was far from imminent.
At the same time, signs emerged from the Kremlin and Kiev that both sides were wary of escalating the crisis, in which one nervous reaction could spark a shooting war.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, during a visit Tuesday to the Ukrainian capital, accused Russia of gun-barrel diplomacy and brutish behavior more befitting the war-racked 19th century. Moscow, he said, has chosen aggression rather than one of the “countless outlets that an organized, structured, decent world has struggled to put together to resolve these differences so we don’t see a nation unilaterally invade another nation.
“It is not appropriate to invade a country and at the end of a barrel of a gun dictate what you are trying to achieve,” Kerry said as he concluded a visit in Kiev to shrines of the protest movement that recently resulted in Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, seeking refuge in Russia.
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, chided President Vladimir Putin in comments during a Washington school visit, saying the Russian leader wasn’t “fooling anybody” with his claim that he was protecting the Russian minority in Ukraine with an act of naked aggression against a sovereign country.
In Moscow, Putin assembled journalists from Kremlin-controlled media to air his views that Western support for Ukraine’s political opposition had egged on the three-month protest that prompted Yanukovych to flee.
“We have told them a thousand times, ‘Why are you splitting the country?’ ” Putin said of the United States and the European Union.
Putin said he still regarded Yanukovych, widely seen as corrupt and autocratic, as the legitimately elected leader of Ukraine and denounced the interim leadership that has taken power as the executors of “an anti-constitutional coup.”
However, glimmers of hope were seen in Putin’s first direct comments on the Crimean confrontation since Russian men in unmarked military fatigues, armed with high-powered weapons, stormed the regional parliament and government buildings in Simferopol late last week. Since then they have seized the city’s airport, the main telecommunications network and the regional television station and have erected cordons around Russian military bases, blockaded Ukrainian installations and taken over the commercial port in Kerch.
Some analysts saw it as a step back from the abyss when Putin observed that no additional Russian troops were necessary in Crimea for now, nor in other Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine’s east and south.
On Sunday, the Russian leader agreed during a phone call from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to a proposed fact-finding mission by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which includes all EU states as well as the U.S., Ukraine and Russia. An observer delegation could begin deploying to Crimea as early as today, said Daniel Baer, the U.S. representative to the OSCE.
NATO foreign ministers, who conferred Tuesday in Brussels, said the Western alliance would meet with Russian representatives today, a further sign that the security chiefs are worried about leaving a tense armed confrontation to fester.
And in one of the most encouraging, if tentative, signs, Ukraine’s interim prime minister, Arseny Yatsenyuk, said Tuesday at a news conference that officials in Kiev and Moscow were talking behind the scenes, a development that might give cooler heads an opportunity to prevail outside the world spotlight.
“We hope that Russia will understand its responsibility in destabilizing the security situation in Europe, that Russia will realize that Ukraine is an independent state and that Russian troops will leave the territory of Ukraine,” Yatsenyuk said.
But the tone of Kerry’s and Putin’s assessments of the standoff painted a picture of two adversaries staking out what they consider principled positions while speaking of blame rather than compromise or dialogue.
Kerry praised the Kiev leadership for its restraint in the face of the Russian moves and called on the people of Ukraine to remain committed to a peaceful transformation of their country and calm in the face of “a Russian government that has chosen aggression and intimidation as a first resort.”
Putin, like Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin the day before, slighted Yanukovych. He said the new leadership in Kiev had simply supplanted “one group of cheats with another.”