President Obama’s diplomatic effort to head off a violent breakup of Ukraine ran aground Saturday as a top U.N. envoy was blocked from a peace mission to the disputed region of Crimea and Russia’s parliament, or Duma, approved a request by Russian President Vladimir Putin to send military forces to Ukraine in support of pro-Russian Ukrainians.
The White House and other European governments have been pressing for international mediation in Ukraine, saying it offered the only hope of reaching a bloodless resolution to the crisis. During a closed-door session of the U.N. Security Council Friday, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, proposed the U.N. send special envoy Robert Serry to the Crimea to see if he could persuade pro-Russian leaders there to make peace with authorities in Kiev. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki moon on Friday instructed Serry — a former Dutch ambassador to Ukraine who currently serves as the U.N. special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — to travel immediately to Crimea.
But Crimea’s pro-Russian authorities have refused to extend an invitation to Serry, according to a diplomatic source tracking the peace process. Crimea’s newly appointed prime minister has asked Russia for help. Serry, meanwhile, has been unable able to secure a flight to Crimea, where Russian-backed forces have seized control of the main airports, according to diplomatic sources.
Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, told reporters at U.N. headquarters Saturday that the diplomatic mission to Crimea had been called off for now. Serry "had wanted to visit Crimea but this proved to be logistically difficult and therefore he has opted to go to Geneva as initially planned, and this will be to brief the [U.N.] Secretary General," Nesirky said.
Obama sought to breath life into the diplomatic process, telling President Putin during a 90-minute phone call that the Russian leader should address his concerns in Ukraine through direct talks with the Ukrainian government, backed by international mediators, the White House said in a statement. The President also proposed the immediate deployment of international monitors to Ukraine under the auspices of the UN Security Council and the UN and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Russia, the White House noted, is a member of both organizations, giving it a priviliged position to ensure its interests are addressed.
But Obama also warned Putin that Russia’s "continued violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would negatively impact Russia’s standing in the international community," according to the White House statement. Obama also told Putin that the United States will suspend participation in preparatory meetings with Russia for the upcoming Group of 8 industrial powers summit. "Russia continued violation of international law will lead to greater political and economic isolation," Obama said.
The Kremlin issued its own readout of the conversation, noting that Putin had defended his decision, claiming that Ukraine’s new government had encouraged the "provocative, criminal actions by ultra-nationalists" and threatened ethnic Russians.
"The Russian president underlined that there are real threats to the life and health of Russian citizens and compatriots on Ukrainian territory," according to the statement. "Vladimir Putin stressed that if violence spread further in the eastern regions of Ukraine and in Crimea, Russia reserves the right to protect its interest and those of Russian speakers living there."
Speaking at an emergency session of the U.N. Securty Council, U.N. Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson updated delegates on the crisis, noting that "airports, communications and public buildings, including regional parliament, reportedly continue to be blocked by unidentified armed men. There are further reports of armed personnel taking control of regional buildings in several cities in the east and south of Ukraine." Despite the troubles, Eliasson said there "are some encouraging signs," including an announcement by Kiev that it is prepared to broaden the government to include representatives from Eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s U.N. envoy, Yuriy Sergeyev, was downbeat.
Challenging Russia’s characterization of its decision to intervene to protect ethnic Russians, Sergeyev said that Russian military action in the Crimea "constituted an act of aggression against Ukraine" and "brutally violated the basic principles of the [UN] charter."
Sergeyev said that the Russian Duma’s authorization of Putin’s request to send troops to Ukraine was redundant. "They are already there and there number is increasingy every hour," he said.
Obama’s national security team met on Saturday "to receive an update on the situation in Ukraine and discuss potential policy options," said a senior administration official. The White House planned to provide further updates later in the day.
The U.N. chief, meanwhile, discussed the crisis in Ukraine by telephone with President Putin Saturday. In remarks following the talk, Ban made no reference to the Russian parliament’s decision to authorized military intervention in Ukraine. But he urged Putin t "to engage in direct dialogue with the authorities in Kiev."
"I am gravely concerned by some of the recent events in particular those that could in any way compromise the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country," Ban added. "Cool heads must prevail."
European governments expressed alarm about the Russian decision to intervene.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said his government summoned the Russian ambassador to the foreign office to "register our deep concern" and that he would travel to Ukraine Sunday to show Britain’s support for the new government in Ukraine." Hague said he has urged Russian foreign minister in a phone conversation Saturday to take steps "to calm this dangerous situation" and to participate in political talks with Ukraine’s government in Kiev.
The Russian decision to seek parliamentary approval for military intervention followed a call for help from Crimea’s Prime Minister Serkiy Aksyonov to bring "peace and tranquility."
Putin defended his action on the grounds that it was essential to act to protect the lives of Russian nationals.
Ukraine’s interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, said Moscow’s decision to send troops to Ukraine was illegal. "Russian military intervention in Ukraine is clearly against international law and principles of European security," he said Saturday.
Power continued to push at the United Nations today to persuade Russia to support a diplomatic mission in Crimea Saturday at the second emergency meeting of the Security Council in two days.
Speaking in today’s emergency session of the UN Security Council, Power said the United States is still seeking to stand up an international mediation effort.
Citing fresh reports of Russian military activities in Crimea, Power said that Russia’s conduct "as dangerous as it is destabilizing," citing fresh reports of Russian military intervention in Crimea.
"The Russian military must stand down," she said. "The Russian military must stand down." Power said the United States respects Russia’s "historical ties to Ukraine" but that it has ignored appeals for dialogue with Kiev. "It is ironic that the Russian Federation regularly goes out of its way in this chamber to empathize the the sanctity of national border and of sovereignty, but Russia actions in Ukraine are violating the sovereignty of Ukraine."
But Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, has been dismissive of U.N. peace efforts, suggesting it might be better if Serry stuck to the Middle East. "We are concerned about the Middle East peace process, you know. We are concerned that he has been pushed into this thing," Churkin said. "As a matter of principle we are against this sort of imposed mediation."
One European diplomat at the Security Council said that the deadlock in the council was growing eerily reminiscent of the darkest days of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956. Today, as then, the Security Council has little diplomatic leverage to prevent Russia, which enjoys veto power, from using force in eastern Ukraine.
Churkin seemed to take offense at suggestions that Moscow was throwing its weight around. Asked late Friday whether his country intended to intervene militarily in Ukraine to achieve its own political aims, he considered the question and then laughed mockingly. "Really, really. Even the question is aggravating."
Meanwhile, members of the U.S. Congress in both parties issued a flurry of statements condemning Russia’s actions and calling for greater U.S. involvement.
"Vladimir Putin is seizing a neighboring territory – again – so President Obama must lead a meaningful, unified response with our European allies," said Sen Bob Corker, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Tennessee Republican vowed that Congress would consider "targeted sanctions against Russian persons and entities" involved in undermining the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged support for U.S. loan guarantees to Ukraine and other forms of assistance. "Today, Ukraine faces formidable challenges, but its people should know that the United States stands with them," he said.
Shane Harris and John Hudson contributed reporting. The post was updated on March 1 at 6:50 p.m.