West, Russia signal line drawn in Ukraine crisis
By Jeff Mason and Katya Golubkova
THE HAGUE/MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia and the West drew a tentative line under the Ukraine crisis on Tuesday after U.S. President Barack Obama and his allies agreed to hold off on more damaging economic sanctions unless Moscow goes beyond the seizure of Crimea.
Describing Russia as a "regional power" and not the biggest national security threat to the United States, Obama said Russian forces would not be removed militarily from Crimea, but the annexation of the Black Sea region was not a "done deal" because the international community would not recognize it.
"It is up to Russia to act responsibly and show itself once again to be willing to abide by international norms and ... if it fails to do so, there will be some costs," he told a news conference at the end of a nuclear security summit in The Hague.
After scoffing at a decision by Obama and his Western allies to boycott a planned Group of Eight summit in Sochi in June and hold a G7 summit without Russia instead, the Kremlin said it was keen to maintain contact with G8 partners.
"The Russian side continues to be ready to have such contacts at all levels, including the top level. We are interested in such contacts," President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told Interfax news agency.
Obama said he was concerned at the possibility of further Russian "encroachment" into Ukraine and believed Putin was still "making a series of calculations". He insisted Russian speakers faced no threat in the country, contrary to Moscow's assertions.
He urged Putin to let Ukrainians choose their own destiny free from intimidation, saying he was sure they would opt for good relations with both the European Union and Moscow rather than making a zero-sum choice for one against the other.
"Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness," Obama said. "We (the United States) have considerable influence on our neighbors. We generally don't need to invade them in order to have a strong cooperative relationship with them."
Asked what was to stop a further Russian "land grab", the U.S. president drew a distinction between an attack on members of NATO, covered by its Article V mutual defense clause, and on non-members where the West could apply international pressure, shine a spotlight on those states and provide economic support.
A senior administration official told reporters traveling with Obama on Air Force One to Brussels that "there's no question that NATO is prepared to defend any ally against any aggression."
The official said that in Obama's talks on Wednesday with NATO's secretary general, "we'll be discussing very specifically what more can be done in terms of signaling concrete reassurance to our Eastern European allies."
Previewing Obama's speech in Brussels on Wednesday, the official said the president "will speak about the importance of European security and not just the danger to the people of Ukraine, but the danger to the international system that Europe and the United States have invested so much in that is a consequence of Russia's actions."
The ruble firmed and Russian assets climbed on Tuesday after Obama and fellow G7 leaders held back from new sanctions and investors took the view that the crisis had been contained for now.