President Obama, responding Friday to a growing crisis in Ukraine that saw armed forces take control of airports in Crimea, said the United States “is deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside Ukraine” and warned Russia there would be "costs for any military intervention."
In a hastily-arranged appearance in the White House press room late in the afternoon, Mr. Obama warned that any violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity would be “deeply destabilizing,” representing “profound interference” in Ukrainian efforts to remain united and politically democratic as it seeks to balance its tenuous place between Europe to the west and Russia to the east.
"Just days after the world came to Russia for the Olympic Games, that would invite the condemnation of nations around the world," Obama said. "The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine."
But Obama took no questions after his brief statement, and he did not detail what any “costs” of Russian military intervention might be. Nor did he indicate that those “reports” of Russian military movements – which now appear to include at least some unidentified ground troops, military aircraft overflights, and Black Sea warship movements – were based on direct US intelligence.
“The situation remains very fluid,” he said.
As Obama prepared to speak, a spokesman for the Ukrainian border service said eight Russian transport planes had landed with unknown cargo in Crimea, a pro-Russian region of southern Ukraine, the Associated Press reported
Serhiy Astakhov told the AP that the Il-76 planes arrived unexpectedly Friday and were given permission to land, one after the other, at Gvardeiskoye air base, north of the regional capital, Simferopol. Astakhov said the people in the planes refused to identify themselves and waved off customs officials.
The president’s statement follows statements and diplomatic contacts by other senior US officials this week, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Vice President Joe Biden, and – just before Obama spoke Friday – Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations.
“The United States calls for an urgent international mediation mission to the Crimea to begin to deescalate the situation, and facilitate productive and peaceful political dialogue among all Ukrainian parties,” Ambassador Power said. Crimea, where a large portion of the population is ethnically Russian, is resisting the new national government in the capital of Kiev, formed after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted.
But whether such a mediation mission to the Crimea would be approved in the UN Security Council – where Russia has veto power – remains unclear, as do prospects for economic or other pressures agreed to by European countries.
As a day of high drama unfolded, Secretary Kerry spoke once again with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov who – Kerry said – assured him that Russians "are not engaging in any violation of the sovereignty" of Ukraine, that military maneuvers now underway had been scheduled previously.
"I nevertheless made it clear that that could be misinterpreted at the moment,'' Kerry said, "and there are enough tensions that it is important for everybody to be extremely careful not to inflame the situation and send the wrong messages."
"We would overwhelmingly stress today that we urge all parties – all parties; that includes the new interim technical government, rightists, oppositionists and others, anybody in the street who is armed – we urge all parties to avoid any steps that could be misinterpreted or lead to miscalculation or do anything other than to work to bring that peace and stability and peaceful transition within the governing process within Ukraine," Kerry said.
As protesters battled pro-Yanukovych forces in the streets of Kiev last week, Obama said, “We'll be monitoring very closely the situation, recognizing that with our European partners and the international community there will be consequences if people step over the line."
To some observers, this was reminiscent of Obama’s warning in 2012 that the US could become involved militarily in Syria if the regime of Bashar al-Assad crossed a “red line” and used chemical weapons against its own people, a threat from which he had to back down.
While the situations in the two countries are far different, they are similar in that US options – particularly military options as the country winds down from two major wars – are strictly limited.