WASHINGTON--With the Russians showing no signs of withdrawing the thousands of troops they have deployed into the Crimean region of the Ukraine, the Obama administration warned on Sunday that Russia's military action could lead to Moscow's international isolation and result in a "long-term hit" to the Russian economy.
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In his phone call on Saturday with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other leaders in the region over the weekend, Obama repeatedly complained of the Russian actions in Ukraine, even as White House officials spoke to Moscow about an off-ramp to end the crisis, according to three senior administration officials.
"The president's point in all of his calls is to point out the complete illegitimacy of Russia's intervention in the Crimea and Ukraine," said an official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive administration efforts.
A second senior administration official said Russia has moved 6,000 troops into the Crimean peninsula, and that there are signs of tensions being "stirred up" in eastern Ukraine between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. The administration official declined to assign blame to a particular person or party for the tension.
Meanwhile, the State Department announced Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Kiev on Tuesday to huddle with Ukraine officials. The State Department also announced that Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs was heading to Vienna on Sunday to meet with senior officials of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to discuss the Ukraine situation.
"Secretary Kerry will meet with senior representatives of Ukraine's new government, leaders of the Rada, and members of civil society," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "The Secretary will reaffirm the United States' strong support for Ukrainian sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and the right of the Ukrainian people to determine their own future, without outside interference or provocation."
One official charged that Putin was using "19th and 20th century" decision making to address his modern-day concerns in Ukraine.
"What he needs to understand is that in terms of his economy he lives in a 21st century world," said the official, who noted Russian currency has taken a big hit over the last three days with the Ruble is now down 8.3% since the beginning of the year.
On Sunday morning, Kerry hit the Sunday talk shows, where he noted the Obama administration is preparing to hit Russia with economic penalties if it continues its aggression inside the Ukraine.
Obama also spoke by phone about the situation in Ukraine on Sunday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Polish President Bronislaw Maria Komorowski, a senior administration official said.
While Obama "flatly rejected" Putin's rationale for deploying troops into the Ukraine, he did suggest to the Russian president an out to end the crisis, one official said. The Russians have raised concern about the safety of their military installation within Crimea as well as raising concerns about ethnic Russians living within the region.
Obama and Putin "began talking about a way ahead with the president (Obama) pressing that there were other ways for Putin to address any concerns he might have and that they could be addressed," a senior administration official said.
Obama specifically noted that the transitional Ukrainian leadership is eager for dialogue and that they were committed to maintaining the rights of all minorities in Ukraine.
Obama "also stressed if there were concerns about safety (of the base) or minorities, there were international tools available to President Putin--monitoring through the United Nations, monitoring and observation through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and that we the United States would support both Russia and the Ukraine if they wanted to avail themselves to those tools," the official said.
"Putin did not slam the door on that, but there was agreement to continue to discuss," the official said.