Ukraine crisis: Obama urges Russia pullback

There have been tense moments as Ukrainian and pro-Russian troops faced off in Crimea

US President Barack Obama has urged Russia to move its troops in Ukraine's Crimea region back to their bases and set up a monitoring mission there, White House officials say.

The offer to Russian President Vladimir Putin was made as Moscow remained in de facto control of the strategic region.

Washington has described this as an "act of aggression" by Moscow - a claim denied by Mr Putin.

Meanwhile, Russia said it had tested an intercontinental ballistic missile.

The defence ministry said a Topol RS-12M missile had been successfully launched from Russia's Kapustin Yar test range near the Caspian Sea to the Sary Shagan range in Kazakhstan.

Start Quote

The US is keen to label Russia's action an "invasion" but as yet no one has been shot by the troops, and it is still time for a war of words - on friend as well as foe, as it happens.”

End Quote

Washington said it had been given advance notice of the missile launch, as required by bilateral arms treaties.

Tensions have been escalating over Russia's military deployment in Crimea and warnings that it could also move into eastern Ukraine to protect Russians and Russian speakers there.

The move has triggered wide condemnation across the globe.

'Sluggish' consultations

President Obama's offer to Moscow envisaged the return of the Russian troops in Crimea back to the bases of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in the peninsula, the White House officials said.

The plan - which Mr Obama discussed with President Putin on Saturday - also calls for sending a group of international monitors to Ukraine to ensure the rights of ethnic Russians are protected.

A Topol missile in transit outside Moscow, 28 February A Topol missile was in transit outside Moscow last week, Reuters reports

The proposal was discussed in details in a phone conversation between President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday.

The Kremlin has so far not publicly commented on the offer.

This comes as US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov are due to meet in Paris later on Wednesday.

Both sides say they would prefer to start a dialogue to ease escalating tensions, and the meeting in France gives them a chance to try, says the BBC's diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall.

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It is what the international community fears most: a confrontation that spills out of control and leads to war”

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Moscow has strongly condemned the recent change of government in Ukraine, which came after months of street protests, more than 90 deaths and the flight of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, a Russian ally.

Speaking during a visit to the Ukrainian capital Kiev on Tuesday, Mr Kerry said there was no indication at all that Russian citizens or Russian-speakers were in any danger in post-uprising Ukraine.

"It is clear that Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further," he said.

In one hint of progress, Ukraine's new Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said consultations had taken place between Russian and Ukrainian ministers. He described them as "quite sluggish" but "first steps".

Crimea uncertainty

Moscow has tightened its grip over the Crimean peninsula after troops thought to be Russian or pro-Russian began taking control of strategic points on Saturday.

US Secretary of State John Kerry: "The US will stand with the Ukrainian people"

Key recent events

21 February - After months of protests, President Viktor Yanukovych signs a deal with opposition leaders to reduce his powers and hold early elections

22 February - Mr Yanukovych goes missing; protesters walk unopposed into official buildings as police abandon posts; parliament votes to impeach the president and calls elections for 25 May

23-26 February - Parliament names speaker Olexander Turchynov as interim president and Arseniy Yatsenyuk as PM; an arrest warrant is issued for Mr Yanukovych, who alleges a coup

27-28 February - Pro-Russian gunmen seize key buildings in Crimean capital, Simferopol

1 March - Russia's parliament approves the use of military force; armed men blockade Ukrainian bases in Crimea

4 March - Russian President Putin denies troop deployments; US Secretary of State John Kerry condemns Russian "act of aggression"; Russia test-fires a ballistic missile

Troops are surrounding Ukrainian military bases and other installations, while two Ukrainian warships are reported to be blocked by a Russian ship in the port of Sevastopol.

Ukrainian TV reported on Tuesday evening that armed men had attempted to take over an anti-aircraft missile base in Yevpatoria, on the coast north of Sevastopol.

Kiev and the West have alleged Russia is mounting an invasion of Crimea, which has a majority Russian-speaking population.

Mr Obama accused Russia of "seeking through force to exert influence on a neighbouring country".

"That is not how international law is supposed to operate," he said.

But at a lengthy news conference on Tuesday, in his first public comments on the issue, Mr Putin denied the heavily armed troops were Russian. He said they were "local self-defence forces" loyal to Moscow, protecting the bases from "nationalists" and "anti-Semites".

Russia, said Mr Putin, reserved the right to act to protect Russian citizens and speakers anywhere in Ukraine.

In Crimea and in eastern Ukraine, there have been shows of support for Russian intervention.

Pro-Russian soldiers in Perevalne, Crimea (4 March 2014) Pro-Russian troops have blocked Ukrainian soldiers in their barracks in Crimea
Pro-Russian soldiers in Perevalne, Crimea (4 March 2014) Russian President Vladimir Putin denies having deployed any troops in Crimea and says the soldiers are self-defence groups
Map

But on Tuesday a peace rally in the eastern city of Donetsk urged Russia to stay away.

"We did not ask for help. I don't want him, Putin, to bring tanks here. I don't want them to shoot at my kids," one woman, Natalia Sytnik, told Reuters.

"Let him hear us: 'Do not defend me from anyone. No-one is attacking me'."

In other developments on Tuesday

  • EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton had "a useful discussion" with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Madrid, said an EU source
  • Mr Lavrov said the Russian position was "honest" and would not change, and that sanctions against Russia would be "counter-productive"
  • A court in Kiev quashed the decision by Crimea's parliament to sack the region's government and also ruled that the move to hold a local referendum on Crimea's status was illegal

Both the US and the EU have offered financial help to Ukraine, which is facing a growing economic crisis amid its severed ties with Moscow.

Mr Kerry took to Kiev a $1bn (£600m; 720m euros) package of energy subsidies, and told the crowds who remain in Independence Square after months of protests that President Obama "is planning more assistance".

The EU is considering paying the $2bn which Ukraine owes to Russia in gas bills, said EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger.

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