US President Barack Obama said yesterday he is concerned that Moscow will move deeper into Ukraine and warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that that would be a bad choice.
Obama stood fast on his insistence that Crimea remains a part of Ukraine, even as the fledgling Ukrainian government in Kiev ordered its troops to pull back from the disputed territory and sacked the country's defence minister.
"We're not recognising what is happening in Crimea," Obama said at his first news conference since Russia moved to annexe Crimea after a referendum 10 days ago. Obama rejected "the notion that a referendum sloppily organised over the course of two weeks" would "somehow be a valid process".
"We also are concerned about further encroachment by Russia into Ukraine," Obama said at a joint news conference with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Obama noted Western sanctions and said that Putin "just has to understand there is a choice to be made here".
Obama was pursuing efforts to pressure Russia out of its aggressive pose as world leaders met for an international Nuclear Security Summit. But to the east, the Russian annexation of Crimea was taking root and Moscow shrugged off Obama's drive to leave Putin in the cold.
In a strongly worded joint statement, the United States, France, Canada, Britain, Germany, Italy and Japan denounced the referendum vote in Crimea to secede from Ukraine and Russia's ensuing annexation. In so doing, the seven leaders also effectively excluded Russia from what had been a two-decade-old coalition known as the Group of Eight.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday said Moscow was "not clinging to" G8 membership of what he described as an informal group.
"If our Western partners think that this format [the G8] has outlived itself, then so be it," he said. "We are not trying to hold on to this format, and we see no great tragedy if it does not meet."
He added that Moscow had no intention of taking over eastern and southern regions of Ukraine.
But Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance was very concerned about a Russian military build-up on Ukraine's borders and had all plans in place to defend members of the alliance.
"All Nato allies can be assured of our determination to provide effective defence ... We have all plans in place to provide effective defence of our allies," he said.
Rasmussen said the Western military alliance was discussing with Kiev how it could enhance its support for Ukraine, which is not a Nato member.
Russian troops and Kremlin-backed militias have seized control of almost all Ukrainian bases and ships in Crimea in a push ordered by Putin on March 1.
Ukraine's ground commanders in Crimea had complained bitterly of indecision and confusion among the top military brass in Kiev.
Some 228 deputies in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada parliament yesterday supported Igor Tenyukh's dismissal after the acting defence minister tendered his resignation in an emotional address broadcast live across the nation of 46 million people.
"I have never clung on to my job, and I don't intend to do so now," he said. "I have honour."
The session gave lawmakers a chance to voice frustration with how the interim leaders have handled their jobs since being swept to power on the back of three months of deadly protests.
Additional reporting by Associated Press, Reuters, The Guardian