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Obama: ‘Russia is on the wrong side of history’ in Ukraine dispute

March 3, 2014 at 8:36 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: The confrontation in Crimea showed no signs of abating today, as Russia and the West faced off. President Obama and other Western leaders talked of sanctions, but there was no sign Moscow was listening.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports on the day’s developments.

MARGARET WARNER: Across Crimea, Russian forces took over border crossings and surrounded military compounds. And there were reports of a Russian ultimatum to Ukrainian forces there to surrender by 5:00 a.m. local time Tuesday. That was denied as nonsense by Moscow.

A Ukrainian officer at an infantry base said his command remained intact:

COL. ALEXANDER SAYANKA, Infantry Battalion Commander, Ukraine (through interpreter): We have not handed over any weapons. Our entire team is still here. We remain faithful to the Ukrainian people. We are ready to fulfill our tasks, and, should it be necessary, we are ready to lay down our lives for the oath we have taken to the people of Ukraine.

MARGARET WARNER: There have been no overt hostilities since the Russian takeover of Crimea began Saturday. But Russian President Vladimir Putin watched war games today outside Saint Petersburg, near the Finnish border.

Similar maneuvers continued in Southern Russia along the Ukraine border, amid fears Moscow could move into other parts of Eastern Ukraine, where ethnic Russians predominate.

In Kiev, the new prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, spoke after meeting with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

ARSENIY YATSENYUK, Prime Minister, Ukraine: Those who are today in Crimea, and they present an illegal, and I would reiterate again, an illegal power in Crimea.

They try to squeeze Ukrainian assets. They try to confiscate Ukrainian property. They try to disarm Ukrainian army. For these kind of actions, they will be prosecuted under domestic and international law. And they have to know this.

MARGARET WARNER: No one talked of a military response. Instead, the U.S. and others sought to muster diplomatic and economic pressure.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think that the strong condemnation it’s received from countries around the world indicates the degree to which Russia is on the wrong side of history on this.

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama, meeting with Israel’s prime minister at the White House, warned Russia will pay a price.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So, there are really two paths that Russia can take at this point. Obviously, the facts on ground in Crimea are deeply troubling, and Russia has a large army that borders Ukraine. But what is also true is that, over time, this will be a costly proposition for Russia.

MARGARET WARNER: The president is dispatching Secretary of State Kerry to Kiev for meetings tomorrow with interim government leaders and parliamentarians. And he called on Congress today to act quickly on economic aid package for Ukraine.

In Brussels today, Kerry’s European Union counterparts urged Russia to take the path of mediation. Carl Bildt is Sweden’s foreign minister.

CARL BILDT, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sweden: I think the Russians are still impressed of — some in Russia still impressed by their military might. But I think after a while, they will see the limitations. Military might is not the way to make friends in Europe, not to make friends in the world, and I think at some point in time, they will start to see that.

MARGARET WARNER: But, in Switzerland, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, again said Moscow was protecting Russian citizens in Crimea. And he lashed back at threats of economic penalties.

SERGEI LAVROV, Foreign Minister, Russia (through interpreter): Those who attempt to interpret the situation as an act of aggression and threaten us with sanctions and boycotts, these are the very same partners of ours who consistently have encouraged political forces close to them to deliver an ultimatum and refuse dialogue, to ignore the concerns of southern and eastern regions of Ukraine, which has ultimately polarized Ukrainian society.

MARGARET WARNER: Back in Kiev, rumors of war stirred differing responses. This couple, a Ukrainian woman and a Russian man, urged calm.

WOMAN (through interpreter): We are against the conflict. We are for peace and friendship. We do not want war.

MAN (through interpreter): We do not want people to kill each other. We want people to live peacefully everywhere, on all continents and everywhere in other countries.

MARGARET WARNER: But others seemed ready to man the ramparts.

LYUDMYLA SHARNA, Ukraine (through interpreter): We have no fear at all. Right now, our children are going to military registration offices. And if needed, we will create people’s emergency volunteer corps and we will protect our state.

MARGARET WARNER: In Moscow, thousands marched Sunday in support of Putin’s move into Crimea.

MAN (through interpreter): To give up Ukraine for the benefit of radicals would be very bad. Putin did a fantastic thing when he forced Georgia to peace. The same thing needs to be done with Ukraine too.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, not all Russians agreed. A small protest outside the Defense Ministry resulted in about 40 arrests yesterday.

ROMAN KOROLYOV, Anti-War Activist (through interpreter): We don’t want the war to begin between our country and Ukraine, which we consider to be our brotherly government, because of imperial ambitions of Russian ruling elites.

MARGARET WARNER: Global markets also reacted nervously, nowhere more so than in Russia.

NIKITA BEKASOV, Moscow Stock Exchange spokesman (through interpreter): We see a broad, steady fall across all assets, which only confirms that macroeconomic factors do not matter here, or an isolated story in some one asset class. The whole market just gave way. It rapidly went down.

MARGARET WARNER: The main Russian stock exchange was down 11 percent today, and the ruble traded at its lowest rate ever against the dollar and euro.

GWEN IFILL: We will have much more on Ukraine, including some of this afternoon’s U.N. Security Council debate and an interview with a top White House adviser, right after the news summary.