Obama says Putin 'not fooling anybody' over Ukraine

Obama says Putin 'not fooling anybody' over Ukraine

KIEV - Agence France-Presse
Obama says Putin not fooling anybody over Ukraine

US President Barack Obama holds Marcus Wesby on his lap as he sits with children during a tour of a Pre-K classroom at Powell Elementary School prior to slamming his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over Ukraine, March 4. AFP photo

U.S. President Barack Obama on March 4 said Russia was not "fooling anybody" over the crisis in Ukraine after Vladimir Putin denied Russian forces were operating on the flashpoint Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

Obama said the European Union and allies like Canada and Japan all believed Russia had violated international law by mobilising troops following the February 22 ouster of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych.

"President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers, maybe a different set of interpretations. But I do not think that is fooling anybody," Obama said during a visit to a school in the U.S. capital.

Pro-Kremlin forces are in de facto control of the strategic, majority-Russian Crimean peninsula where Ukrainian troops remain blocked inside their barracks in the most serious stand-off between the West and Russia since the end of the Cold War.

Putin, breaking more than a week of silence with a press conference in Moscow, said his country reserved the right to use "all available means" to protect Russians in Ukraine. "This is a last resort," he added.

Responding to claims by Ukraine's new authorities that thousands of Russian troops had poured into Crimea in recent days, Putin said that only "local forces of self-defence" were surrounding Ukrainian military bases in the region. Asked if Russian forces took part in operations in Crimea, he said, "No, they did not participate", adding: "There are lots of uniforms that look similar." 

Kerry bewildered

In a show of support for the new interim leaders in Kiev, visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned Russia's "act of aggression" and accused Moscow of "working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further."

When told of Putin's remarks by a reporter in Kiev, Kerry responded: "He really denied there were Russian forces in Crimea?" and shook his head, bewildered.

The top U.S. diplomat also laid flowers and lit a candle at the scene of memorials to the nearly 100 people who died in clashes on Kiev's Independence Square last month.

The square was the focal point of three months of protests sparked by Yanukovych's decision to reject a key EU deal in favour of closer ties with Moscow.

In a sign of profound Western frustrations with Russia, Kerry warned that unless Russia acts to reduce tensions, it will face further international action after the U.S. already suspended military cooperation.

"If Russia does not choose to de-escalate... then our partners will have absolutely no choice but to join us to continue to expand the kind of steps we have taken in recent days in order to isolate Russia politically, diplomatically and economically," he said.

A U.S. official travelling with Kerry said Russia was "likely" to face U.S. moves to introduce sanctions as early as this week. The EU has also threatened "targeted measures."

Amid the tensions, Russia carried out a successful test launch of an "advanced" intercontinental ballistic missile, state news agencies reported. The U.S. was informed of the test earlier this week, a U.S. defence official said.

Ukraine's interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk also announced his government had made the first "timid" contacts with Russian leaders aimed at resolving the crisis. 

Kerry will come face-to-face with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Paris on March 5, their first encounter since the start of the Crimea turmoil.

The two are scheduled to take part in a conference on Lebanon, with the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany also attending. The events in Ukraine are expected to overshadow the talks.

Also on March 5, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will visit Kiev ahead of an EU emergency summit on Ukraine on March 6.