"There is a better way for Russia to pursue its legitimate interests in Ukraine."
John Kerry says it's "time to set the record straight" in Eastern Europe.
The secretary of State's remarks at a press conference in Kiev on Tuesday came hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to the press on his country's recent incursion into Crimea, a sovereign region of Ukraine. The two politicians' remarks, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel might put it, were truly from different worlds.
"Not a single piece of credible evidence supports any one of these claims," said Kerry of Putin's justifications for entering Crimea. "None."
The secretary said the U.S. is not seeking confrontation. "There is a better way for Russia to pursue its legitimate interests in Ukraine." Kerry spoke harshly and clearly when he said, "There are countless outlets that an organized, structured, decent world has struggled to put together to resolve these differences so we don't see a nation unilaterally invade another nation."
One of the end goals of diplomacy, Kerry said, is "to allow Russia to be properly listened to." He acknowledged that the country has "legitimate interests in Ukraine."
In a brief statement Tuesday, President Obama echoed Kerry's statement. Obama said that the U.S. stands "on the side of history," and supports the principle that Ukrainians, "an independent people," should be able to "make their own decisions about their lives." Russia is currently residing on a losing side of history, Obama suggested. "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."
Interestingly enough, Putin echoed this self-determination sentiment in his own speech: "Most importantly, people should have the right to determine their own future, that of their families and of their region, and to have equal participation in it."
Still, Obama said, "what's happening there is not based on actual concern for Russian nationals or Russian speakers inside of Ukraine, but is based on Russia seeking through force to exert influence on the neighboring country."
But words from the U.S. are unlikely to shake Putin, whose rhetoric reflects an entirely different logic. According to Putin, ethnic Russians are under threat from the interim Ukraine government, there are no official Russian troops stationed in Crimea, and "American political technologists" are fanning the unrest. All details that Kerry and the U.S. would contest outright.
Here are some more specific examples of disagreement between the two countries.
Kerry: 'There Is Nothing Strong About What Russia Is Doing'
On last month's peace agreement:
Putin: [President Viktor Yanukovych] agreed to all the opposition's demands: He agreed to early parliamentary elections, to early presidential elections, and to return to the 2004 Constitution, as demanded by the opposition.... And as soon as he left, instead of releasing the occupied administrative buildings, they immediately occupied the president's residence and the government building—all that instead of acting on the agreement.
Kerry: The Russian government would have you believe it was the opposition who failed to implement the Feb. 21 agreement that called for a peaceful transition, ignoring the reality that it was Yanukovych, when history came calling, when his country was in need, when this city was the place where the action was, where the leaders of the nation were gathered in order to decide the future—he broke his obligation to sign that agreement, and he fled into the night with his possessions, destroying papers behind him.
On the legitimacy of the newly formed Ukrainian government:
Putin: Are the current authorities legitimate? The parliament is partially, but all the others are not. The current acting president is definitely not legitimate. There is only one legitimate president, from a legal standpoint. Clearly, he has no power. However, as I have already said, and will repeat: Yanukovych is the only undoubtedly legitimate president.
Kerry: The Russian government would have you believe that the Ukraine government is illegitimate or led by extremists, ignoring the reality that the [Ukrainian parliament] representing the people of Ukraine, the elected representatives of the people of Ukraine, they overwhelmingly improve the new government, even with members of Yanukovych's party deserting him and voting overwhelmingly in order to approve this new government.
On conditions within Kiev:
Putin: Armed and masked militants are still roaming the streets of Kiev.
Kerry: The Russian government would also have you believe that the calm and friendly streets, one of which I walked down, but many of which I just drove through, that somehow these streets of Kiev are actually dangerous, ignoring the reality that there has been no surge in crime, no surge in looting. No political retribution here.