(CNSNews.com) – The gloves came off in the standoff over Ukraine Tuesday, with Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing the U.S. of beating into submission countries that don’t agree with it, and President Obama accusing Russia of violating international law by “seeking, through force, to exert influence on a neighboring country.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, accused Russia of “falsehoods” and expressed disbelief when told that Putin was denying that Russian troops were occupying Ukraine’s Crimea region.
The first blows came from the Russian leader, who ended his silence on the Crimea crisis and spoke to Russian reporters for an hour near Moscow. The Kremlin provided an official translation.
Asked about Western criticism of Russia’s actions, Putin replied, “We are often told our actions are illegitimate, but when I ask, ‘Do you think everything you do is legitimate?’ they say ‘yes.’ Then, I have to recall the actions of the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, where they either acted without any U.N. sanction or completely distorted the content of such resolutions, as was the case with Libya.”
Putin said the Americans “always clearly formulate their own geopolitical and state interests and follow them with persistence. Then, using the principle ‘You’re either with us or against us’ they draw the whole world in. And those who do not join in get beaten until they do.”
He denied violating international law, repeating the argument that Ukraine’s ousted president, Viktor Yanukovich, remains the country’s legitimate leader and that he had appealed to Russia for help.
Asked about Western threats of sanctions or a withdrawal from the G8 summit he is due to host in June, Putin warned that in an “interconnected” world sanctions cause mutual damage. As for the summit: “If they do not want to come – so be it.”
Putin also denied that uniformed, armed men that have been blockading Ukrainian military facilities in Crimea were Russian troops – despite a reporter pointing out that the uniforms “strongly resemble” those of the Russian Army.
“Why don’t you take a look at the post-Soviet states. There are many uniforms there that are similar,” Putin replied. “You can go to a store and buy any kind of uniform.”
“But were they Russian soldiers or not?” the reporter asked.
“No, those were local self-defense units.”
Kerry, speaking to journalists during a visit to Kiev, expressed surprise at the denial.
“He really denied there were troops in Crimea?” he asked, shaking his head.
Kerry accused the Russian government of “hiding its hand behind falsehoods, intimidation, and provocations.”
“I think that it is clear that Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further,” he said, adding that the only people he had seen in Kiev who appeared to be at risk were those threatened by “the potential of an invasion by Russia.”
'I don’t think that’s fooling anybody'
In Washington, Obama challenged Putin’s assertion that Russia was not contravening international law.
Answering a reporter’s question after unveiling his FY2015 budget, Obama said, “from the perspective of the European Union, the United States, allies like Canada and Japan, and allies and friends and partners around the world – there is a strong belief that Russia’s action is violating international law.”
“I know President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations, but I don’t think that’s fooling anybody.”
Obama said the fact Russian soldiers were still out of their barracks in Crimea indicated that Moscow is “seeking, through force, to exert influence on a neighboring country. That is not how international law is supposed to operate.”
“We stand on the side of history that I think more and more people around the world deeply believe in – the principle that a sovereign people, an independent people are able to make their own decisions about their own lives,” Obama said. “And Mr. Putin can throw a lot of words out there, but the facts on the ground indicate that right now he’s not abiding by that principle.”