U.S.-Russian war of words continues over Ukraine

A Ukrainian woman speaks with U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry in Kiev as he visits a shrine to people killed during the recent political uprising.
(Kevin Lamarque / AFP/Getty Images)

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 F. 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 Yanukovich, seeking refuge in Russia.


President 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 Yanukovich 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 Yanukovich, 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 Wednesday, 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 Wednesday, 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 both 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.

“In the hearts of Ukrainians and the eyes of the world, there is nothing strong about what Russia is doing,” Kerry said, referring to analysts’ interpretation that Putin had seized Crimea to project an image of a powerful new Russia bent on reasserting its influence across the former republics of the Soviet Union.


Putin continued to cast the new authorities in Ukraine as “armed, masked militants roaming around Kiev,” despite the fact that many of them have previously held national office, conducting affairs of state.

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 Yanukovich. He said the new leadership in Kiev had simply supplanted “one group of cheats with another.”

Kerry acknowledged that Russia had legitimate interests to safeguard in Crimea, where nearly 60% of the population is ethnic Russian and the peninsula has long been a strategic military location and summer vacation playground. The region was ceded to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, when it seemingly made little difference in which part of the Soviet Union the Black Sea fleet and warm-water ports were situated.


Both Putin and Kerry paid at least lip service to the desire for sincere dialogue and level-headed compromise.

But with the war of words still drowning out the whispers for a winding down of the confrontation, there appeared little likelihood that the tension would ease anytime soon.

Times staff writer Christi Parsons in Washington contributed to this report.