US pushes sharp message on Russian 'aggression' as Putin tours Europe

In Ukraine today, UN Ambassador Samantha Power reassured the country that the 'US stands with you.' Meanwhile, the US ambassador to the Vatican urged the pope to call out Russian actions more pointedly.

Gregorio Borgia/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Pope Francis during a private meeting at the Vatican City on Wednesday. The United States has urged the Vatican to criticize Russia's involvement in the Ukraine conflict more forcefully.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Europe to share his view of the Ukraine conflict, US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power countered with a sharp message, accusing Russia of being the aggressor in Ukraine, and saying in a tweet to the embattled country that the “US stands w/you as you fight on two fronts.”

Ambassador Power was speaking of Ukraine’s fight in the east against Russian-backed rebel forces and of the effort in Kiev to build “an open, responsive govt.”

Ms. Power is in Kiev to affirm support for Ukraine and to meet with senior government officials, parliamentarians, monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and students.  Her unambiguous statements appear designed to remind the court of world opinion of “Russia’s … continuing occupation of Crimea” as CNN points out today. 

President Putin continues to deny that Russia plays a supporting role in the 14 months of conflict between Kiev forces and armed rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Power’s direct statements come as Vladimir Putin is in Europe after a meeting of G-7 countries (Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States), and appears to be testing the strength of EU solidarity on sanctions against Russia. 

Mr. Putin yesterday met Pope Francis, spending 50 minutes in discussions that included a request by the Roman Catholic pontiff that Putin be “sincere” about peace. He also met with the controversial but popular former leader of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi.

Before Putin sat down with the pope at Vatican City yesterday, according to The Associated Press, the US ambassador to the Holy See, Kenneth Hackett, urged Pope Francis to take a more pointed stand in calling out Russian aggression.

"We think they could say something more about concern of territorial integrity, those types of issues," Hackett told reporters. "It does seem that Russia is supporting the insurgents. And it does seem that there are Russian troops inside Ukraine.”

Vatican spokesman Frederico Lombardi said the Roman Catholic leader stressed the “need to commit oneself in a sincere and great effort to achieve peace," and that the two men "agreed on the importance of reconstructing a climate of dialogue and … implementing the Minsk accords." The Vatican so far has stayed away from fingering Moscow as a protagonist in the Ukraine conflict out of concern for the Catholic minority in Russia, analysts say. 

The US remains concerned that Mr. Putin will make headway in weakening the current sanctions regime against Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea. The Moscow Times today states that Putin’s European trip is designed to exploit “rifts in the EU.”

The Kremlin seems to have attempted to exploit cracks in the EU’s position, flirting with European governments and political parties that have expressed sympathy toward Russia. Putin hosted Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, a staunch opponent to EU sanctions against Russia, in the Kremlin in April. The president also met with Euroskeptic Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest to discuss energy issues in March.

Al Jazeera today ran a news feature on Putin's efforts in Europe to label the entire Ukraine conflict as a plot by the US to maintain control of the world order. The story quotes from recent Putin press conferences in Italy: 

Putin bluntly accused the CIA and the U.S. State Department as the culprits in wrecking the Feb. 21 [Minsk 2] agreement and using Germany, France and Poland as props. On [Putin's] read, the U.S. is using Ukraine’s tragedy to frighten Europe. Why? Because the U.S. believes it can maintain supremacy over Europe if Russia is cast as the villain.

“Let’s suppose that the United States would like to maintain its leadership in the Atlantic community,” Putin proposed. “It needs an external threat, an external enemy to ensure this leadership. Iran is clearly not enough. This threat is not very scary or big enough. Who can be frightening? And then suddenly this crisis unfolds in Ukraine. Russia is forced to respond.” 

[Correction: An earlier version of this story repeated press reports that Power would open a UN office to implement the Minsk agreement; in fact the office is still in a planning stage.] 

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