Kerry on Crimea: Change Should Not Come Through ‘the Butt of a Rifle’

By Melanie Arter | March 18, 2014 | 3:44 PM EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet at the Russian Ambassador's Residence in Paris, Wednesday, March 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Kevin Lamarque, Pool)

( - Secretary of State John Kerry in a town hall meeting with college students on Tuesday said the interim government in Kiev is willing to work on full representation in the country and full protection of minority rights, churches and the Russian language, but that should be done “through the legitimate legislative process, not at the butt of a rifle.”

“The interim government in Kiev – Prime Minister [Arseny] Yatsenyuk has publicly stated – and I’ve seen the plan – that they are completely prepared to work on full representation in the country, full protection of minority rights, full protection of churches, [and] full protection of the Russian language. All of those things can happen, but they ought to happen through the legitimate legislative process, not at the butt of a rifle,” Kerry said.

On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty for Crimea to join Russia, a move he said was corrective in nature and in response to Western encroachment on Russia’s vital interests, the Associated Press reported. "In people's hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia," Putin said.

Ukraine’s new government called Putin a threat to the world, and the U.S. condemned the move. "The world has seen through Russia's actions and has rejected the flawed logic," Vice President Joe Biden said. He warned that the U.S. and Europe would impose more sanctions against Russia.

The town hall meeting that Kerry hosted was titled “Making Foreign Policy Less Foreign” and was held in the Marshall Conference Center at the State Department and was designed to show university students different ways they could interact with the State Department.

During the question and answer segment of the town hall meeting, a student asked whether Kerry was concerned that relations with Russia was “so bad” that it would affect cooperation on Syria and Iran.

“Obviously, we really hope not,” Kerry said. “We hope that Russia will realize beyond what is happening in Crimea that it has serious interests that haven’t changed.

“The interests that brought it to the table originally to work with us are the same interests today, and so if you’re serious about non-proliferation, then you shouldn’t walk away from the responsibility to make sure Iran does not have a nuclear weapon,” he said.

“If you’re serious about wanting to end the war in Syria and keep chemical weapons out of the hands of terrorists, then you shouldn’t walk away from your responsibility to help finish the deal that you helped broker,” Kerry added.

The secretary said the U.S. and Russia have been able to “find areas of significant cooperation on the big ticket items” despite their differences.

“That’s the tragedy of what has happened with respect to Crimea. Nobody that I know of who reads the facts doubts Russia’s interests in Crimea. That’s not the issue here. Russia has an enormous historical connection to Ukraine. Kiev is the birth—I mean this is the birthplace of the Russian religion. It has extraordinary connections,” Kerry said.

“We know this, but that doesn’t legitimize just taking what you want because you want it or because you’re angry about the end of the Cold War or the end of the Soviet Union or whatever it is,” he said.