U.S. President Barack Obama Tuesday called on Russia to open talks with the interim Ukrainian government, and to allow international monitors to determine whether ethnic Russians in Ukraine are under threat, as alleged by Moscow.
Mr. Obama spoke in Washington, following a news conference in Moscow by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader defended his country's military intervention in the Crimean peninsula last week, saying he reserves the right to protect Russians in Ukraine. But he also insisted that gunmen blocking Ukrainian military units in the region are "local self-defense forces," not Russian soldiers.
President Obama countered that Moscow has no legal right to intervene militarily, while acknowledging that Mr. Putin "seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations."
Late Tuesday, in a sign interpreted cautiously by analysts, NATO said Russia has agreed to attend an emergency NATO-Russia council meeting in Brussels Wednesday to discuss the crisis.
In Kyiv Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also condemned Russian actions in Crimea and pledged U.S. economic help to the interim government. As he arrived in the capital, the Obama administration announced a $1 billion energy subsidy package for Ukraine, which is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
The U.S. diplomat spoke after meeting with Ukraine's top officials and visiting the site of a memorial to protesters killed in clashes with security forces before Viktor Yanukovych fled the country in late February.
Mr. Putin has ordered tens of thousands of troops taking part in military exercises near the Ukrainian border, to return to base. The exercises were scheduled to end, so it is unclear whether the move was intended to help ease tensions.
The Crimea peninsula was placed under Ukrainian control in 1954 by then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. It remained part of Ukraine when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Crimea has a tiny border with Russia on its far eastern point, and the Crimean port of Sevastapol is home to Russia's Black Sea fleet.
Most of the people living in Crimea are ethnic Russians, but the region also is home to ethnic Muslim Tatars, who generally show disdain for Russia.
Ukrainian officials say Moscow has sent 16,000 troops into Crimea since last week.
Ukraine's troubles began in November, when President Yanukovych backed out of a trade deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties and economic aid from Russia. The move triggered weeks of pro-Western anti-government demonstrations in Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine, and forced the pro-Russian Yanukovych to flee the capital in late February.