Kerry in Last-Minute Effort to Stop Crimea From Voting to Join Russia

By Patrick Goodenough | March 13, 2014 | 4:27am EDT

President Obama meets with Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, March 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

( – As Secretary of State John Kerry prepares to meet his Russian counterpart in London for last-ditch talks Friday aimed at averting a rushed referendum on Crimea’s reincorporation into Russia, neither Russia nor the separatist authorities in Crimea show any sign of backing down.

President Obama’s decision to send Kerry comes just two days after the State Department said Kerry would only meet with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss the Crimea situation “if and when we see concrete evidence that Russia is prepared to engage on these proposals.”

“We think there needs to be concrete evidence that Russia is prepared to engage on these proposals and in these discussions in a serious way,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday, referring to the possibility of a Kerry-Lavrov meeting.

So far Moscow has shunned U.S. proposals to resolve the dispute, primarily because it refuses to talk to Ukraine’s new government, which it regards as illegitimate.

Russian media are characterizing the results of Sunday’s referendum as all but inevitable, predicting that the two million inhabitants of the Russian-majority region of Ukraine will strongly support the Black Sea peninsula becoming the 84th member of the Russian Federation.

The Kremlin has said it will “respect” the outcome, and the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, also has said it will support Crimea’s decision to join Russia if the vote goes that way. The Federation Council is sending “observers” to monitor the exercise.

In Crimea itself, the region’s pro-Russian government said interim results in the referendum will be available as early as Sunday.

In a further provocative move, the region’s “prime minister,” Sergei Aksenov, said Ukrainian Navy ships that have been seized in Crimea will not be returned to Ukraine, Interfax reported. (Crimea’s Sevastopol is home to the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet, and also the headquarters of the Ukrainian Navy.)

Aksenov is wanted by the authorities in Ukraine for “actions aimed at the violent overthrow, change of constitutional order, or the seizure of state power.”

At the White House, Obama attacked the referendum plan, saying alongside Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk that it would be contrary to international law and to Ukraine’s national constitution.

Obama criticized Russia for trying to draw a comparison between the Crimea referendum and situations elsewhere, including Scotland’s planned referendum on independence next September.

“In each of those cases that they’ve cited, decisions were made by a national government through a long, lengthy, deliberative process,” he said. “It’s not something that happens in a few days, and it’s not something that happens with an outside army essentially taking over the region.”

“The issue now is whether or not Russia is able to militarily dominate a region of somebody else’s country, engineer a slapdash referendum, and ignore not only the Ukrainian constitution but a Ukrainian government that includes parties that are historically in opposition with each other – including, by the way, the party of the previous president [Viktor Yanukovich].”

Obama reiterated that the U.S. will not recognize the referendum, and noted that his administration has “put in place the architecture for us to apply financial and economic consequences to actions that are taken.”

(The president last Thursday issued an executive order creating the authority for sanctions against individuals and entities “responsible for violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” Targets have yet to be named.)

“But our strong preference is to resolve this diplomatically,” Obama added.

That eleventh-hour diplomatic push will be led by Kerry, who is due to meet with Lavrov in London, where he plans to present a “series of options that are appropriate in order to try to respect the people of Ukraine, international law and the interests of all concerned.”

Speaking on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Kerry said it did not serve America’s interests to isolate Moscow, alluding to nuclear negotiations with Iran, efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria, and the Afghanistan drawdown.

“But we will do what we have to do if Russia cannot find the way to make the right choices here,” he told a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing.

In a statement Wednesday, Russia’s partners in the Group of Eight leading industrialized powers declared that the Crimea referendum “will have no legal effect” and its outcome will not be recognized.

The seven countries – Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.S. – warned that if Russia goes ahead and annexes Crimea, “we will take further action, individually and collectively.”

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