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Obama warns against ‘profound interference’ in Ukraine

February 28, 2014 at 6:02 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: This was a day of deepening crisis in the Ukrainian region of Crimea, amid growing signs of a possible bid to break away from Ukraine.

Ukrainian leaders accused Russia of a military invasion and occupation of its territory.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has our report on the day’s events.

KWAME HOLMAN: The situation in Crimea approached a dangerous pivot point, as Ukraine’s new government accused Russian forces of taking over two airports, a Coast Guard station and a border post.

At a roadblock near one airport, this man said he had no idea who the armed men were, but they quickly set up a security perimeter.

MAN (through interpreter): They arrived around 10:00 p.m. Right there, a machine gun was installed. The trucks passed through and immediately took control of the whole area. Armed men jumped out from the trucks.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Crimean Peninsula is a bastion of support for Moscow, and is home to Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet.

The fleet command denied the well-armed uniformed men on patrol were in fact Russian troops, but Russian military vehicles were seen outside the base, a possible violation of longstanding regulations. By late today, the gunmen had extended their hold on the main airport, and Ukraine’s largest airline said airspace over Crimea now was closed.

In Kiev, the new interior minister called it an armed invasion, and the acting president warned against outside interference.

OLEKSANDR TURCHYNOV, Acting President, Ukraine (through interpreter): According to established agreements, we demand from all countries guarantees to confirm in practice actions to respect the independence, sovereignty and borders of Ukraine, and to refrain from using force against Ukraine’s territorial integrity or political independence.

KWAME HOLMAN: He later said Russia was following the same strategy it used in the run-up to a war with Georgia in 2008, and he urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to cease what he called provocations.

But large-scale Russian military maneuvers continued just across the border on Russian soil. And a Russian naval vessel took position at the entrance to a harbor that leads to Sevastopol and the Russian Black Sea fleet.

In Washington, Secretary of State Kerry spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov by phone. At a joint appearance with Colombia’s foreign minister, Kerry said Lavrov assured him that Moscow has no designs on Ukraine.

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: I made it clear that intervention would, in our judgment, be a very grave mistake.

I, nevertheless, made it clear that that could be misinterpreted at this moment and that there are enough tensions that it is important for everybody to be extremely careful not to inflame the situation and not to send the wrong messages.

He reaffirmed to me that President Putin is committed and that, as a matter of policy, they do not intend to violate the sovereignty of Ukraine.

KWAME HOLMAN: And this afternoon, the United Nations Security Council met to discuss Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the deposed president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, renewed his claim on that post today in his first public appearance since he fled Kiev last Friday. He called the pending May 25 elections illegitimate, and the interim Ukrainian leadership bandits, speaking in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don hard by the Ukrainian border.

FMR. PRESIDENT VIKTOR YANUKOVYCH, Ukraine (through interpreter): I intend to continue to fight for the future of Ukraine against those who are trying to seize it with the help of fear and terror. And I decided to announce it publicly. Nobody ousted me. I was forced to leave Ukraine under a direct threat to my life and the lives of my relatives.

KWAME HOLMAN: He blamed the West for creating unrest, and insisted he had not ordered riot police to shoot protesters in Kiev, where more than 80 were killed. Video evidence last week showed heavily armed uniformed security forces firing live ammunition in Kiev’s central square.

Ukrainian officials announced today they’re seeking to extradite Yanukovych from Russia to stand trial for ordering those killings.

And Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein moved to freeze the bank accounts of Yanukovych and his son. Swiss prosecutors also announced Yanukovych is being investigated for alleged money laundering. The apparent spoils of his rule were on display last week, as protesters wandered through a vacant, garishly lavish palace that he’d had built for himself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Late today, President Obama warned that there will be costs for any outside intervention in Ukraine. Speaking in the White House Briefing Room, he said the United States is deeply concerned by reports of Russian military movements.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity will be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia or Europe.

It would represent a profound interference in matters that must be determined by the Ukrainian people. It would be a clear violation of Russia’s commitment to respect the independence, and sovereignty and borders of Ukraine and of international laws. And just days after the world came to Russia for the Olympic Games, it would invite the condemnation of nations around the world.