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Obama: U.S. Fears Future Russian "Encroachment" into Ukraine

U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States is concerned about the possibility of Russia moving farther into Ukraine after its annexation of Crimea.

Speaking Tuesday at a joint news conference with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in the Hague, Mr. Obama said Washington is concerned about "further encroachment" by Russia into Ukraine, but added it would be a "bad choice" on Russia's part, and that the U.S. and its European allies have plans for further sanctions on Russia if necessary.

He acknowledged that Russia's military controls Crimea, but said the annexation of the peninsula "is not a done deal" because it is not recognized internationally.

Mr. Obama said he believes if Ukrainians had a choice, they would seek to have a relationship with both Europe and Russia.

He also said contrary to Russian claims there is "no evidence" that Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine are "in any way threatened," adding that there is evidence Russian "provocateurs" are trying to stir up trouble in Ukraine.

Earlier Tuesday, Russia dismissed as "counterproductive" a move by world powers to cut Moscow out of the Group of Eight industrialized nations over its actions in Ukraine.

The spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin made the comment one day after the seven other G8 nations agreed to hold their own Group of Seven summit in June instead of attending the previously-planned G8 meeting in Russia.

In a joint statement issued on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in The Hague, Netherlands, the leaders of the U.S., Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan said they were suspending their participation with Russia in the G8, until Moscow "changes course." Western powers have been moving to isolate Russia over its annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.

Russian news agencies quote the Kremlin spokesman as saying Russia is ready for and interested in continuing contacts with its fellow G8 countries. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday it would be "no great tragedy" if Russia were dropped from the coalition.

Also Tuesday, Ukrainian lawmakers fired acting defense minister Igor Tenyukh after he offered to step down because of criticism that he mishandled the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from Crimea. Ukraine ordered its troops to leave the region on Monday, about a week after Russian troops began moving into military bases in the region.

Tenyuhk said only 4,300 out of the 18,800 Ukrainian troops that were stationed in Crimea have decided to keep their Ukrainian military positions and evacuate the region. Some have elected to join Russian forces.

The United States Tuesday reaffirmed its commitment to the Ukrainian leadership. In a joint statement, the two countries described Russia's attempt to annex Crimea as "illegal" and vowed not to recognize the move. The statement said Russia's actions "undermine the foundation of the global security architecture and endanger European peace and security."

On Monday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu toured Russian military headquarters in Crimea, as Russian forces seized Ukraine's last military base on the peninsula and Ukrainian forces withdrew.

Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, ordered the withdrawal in the face of a much larger Russian military presence on the peninsula. He said the move is a response to threats by Russian forces on the lives of Ukrainian service members and their families.

Late Monday, Russia's RIA Novosti news agency quoted Crimea's deputy prime minister as saying all military units in the peninsula are now under the control of the Russian military.

Ukraine's secretary for national security, Andriy Parubiy, told VOA that about 100,000 Russian troops and armor are poised along Ukrainian borders and remain on full alert.

That troop presence on Ukraine's eastern and southern borders has triggered alarm in Kyiv. It also has spawned warnings from NATO that Moscow may be seeking to expand its territorial reach into another pro-Russian territory on Ukraine's southwestern border -- Transdniester.

For its part, Moscow has insisted the border troops are conducting maneuvers, and says there are no plans to cross into Ukraine.

Ukraine has remained highly unstable since November, when then-President Viktor Yanukovych backed off from signing a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. The move led to weeks of anti-government protests in Kyiv that forced Mr. Yanukovych to flee the country last month.

Crimeans voted last week in a highly controversial ballot to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation, a move quickly embraced by Russian President Putin. The United States and the European Union say the vote violates Ukraine's constitution and is illegal.

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