WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Saturday called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to de-escalate the tense atmosphere in Ukraine by pulling his forces back to bases in the country's Crimean region and to refrain from interfering elsewhere in the former Soviet republic.
Obama delivered the message to Putin during a 90-minute telephone conversation, the White House said.
But Obama's request appeared likely to go unheeded as the Kremlin said Putin, in turn, emphasized to Obama the existence of real threats to the life and health of Russian citizens living in Ukraine and that Russia has the right to protect its interests there.
Russian troops took over Crimea as the Russian parliament on Saturday granted Putin authority to use the military to protect Russian interests in Ukraine.
Ukraine's newly installed government was powerless to react to the swarm of Russian troops.
"President Obama expressed his deep concern over Russia's clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity," the White House said in a statement that called the action "a breach of international law."
Hours earlier, Obama's national security team huddled at the White House to get updates on the situation and discuss policy options. Obama did not participate. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry participated by videoconference.
"The United States condemns Russia's military intervention into Ukrainian territory," the White House said.
Obama also discussed the situation with French President Francois Hollande and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke by telephone with his Russian counterpart and stressed that, "without a change on the ground," Russia risks further instability in the region, isolation in the international community and an escalation that would threaten European and international security, the Pentagon said.
Kerry said he spoke with Ukraine's President Oleksandr Turchynov Saturday morning "to assure him he had the strong support of the United States." Kerry also convened a call with his counterparts from around the world to coordinate on next steps.
But a defiant-sounding statement from Moscow said Putin stressed to Obama that the situation in Ukraine poses "real threats" to the life and health of Russian citizens and compatriots who live in Ukrainian territory.
"Vladimir Putin emphasized that, in the case of a further spread in violence in eastern regions (of Ukraine) and Crimea, Russia maintains the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population that lives there," the Kremlin said.
Obama told Putin that the appropriate way to address concerns about the treatment of ethnic Russian and minority populations in Ukraine is to do so peacefully through direct contact with Ukraine's new government and through international observers.
He said the U.S. was prepared to help mediate such a dialogue.
Obama also made clear that Russia's continued violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity would have a negative effect on Russia's standing in the eyes of the world.
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