President Barack Obama responded to the crisis in Ukraine by suspending US preparations for a meeting of industrial nations in Russia and telling Russian President Vladimir Putin that his country has violated international law.
In a 90-minute phone call yesterday, the White House said Obama "expressed his deep concern over Russia's clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity" in sending troops across its neighbor's border.
"The US calls on Russia to de-escalate tensions by withdrawing its forces back to bases in Crimea and to refrain from any interference elsewhere in Ukraine," according to the White House statement.
The conversation between the two leaders, unusually long and reflecting the gravity of the situation, came as Russia's parliament voted to approve military action in Ukraine and after Russian troops seized airfields, roads and government buildings in the country's Crimea region.
Obama's suspension of meetings to prepare for the Russian- hosted G-8 summit in June on trade and finance represented his first concrete public action on the Ukrainian crisis and suggests the US could boycott the gathering altogether.
Also yesterday, the US called for dispatching international observers to Crimea and other parts of Ukraine.
Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, pushed for the deployment of such observers by international organizations at an emergency meeting of the UN's Security Council yesterday. "That's the best way to get the facts, monitor conduct, and prevent any abuses," she said.
The military movements in Crimea, home to Russia's Black Sea fleet, risk destabilizing Ukraine as its new government negotiates with the US and Europe for financial aid to avoid default.
A statement posted on Putin's website said that in his conversation with Obama, he defended his actions, citing "the provocative and criminal actions on the part of ultra-nationalists who are in fact being supported by the current authorities in Kiev," Ukraine's capital.
"Vladimir Putin stressed that in case of any further spread of violence to Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Russia retains the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population of those areas," the statement said.
Obama called on Putin to begin "direct engagement" with Ukrainian officials over his concerns about the treatment of ethnic Russians.
"The Ukrainian government has made clear its commitment to protect the rights of all Ukrainians and to abide by Ukraine's international commitments, and we will continue to urge them to do so," the White House statement said.
Obama warned that violations of Ukraine's sovereignty "would negatively impact Russia's standing in the international community," and that the US "will suspend upcoming participation in preparatory meetings for the G-8," the statement said.
Before the Obama-Putin talk, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel conferred by phone with his Russian counterpart, Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu, and expressed his "deep concern" over Russia's military intervention in Ukraine, according to a Defense Department statement.
Hagel told Shoygu that Russia's actions flout international treaty obligations for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. "Without a change on the ground, Russia risks further instability in the region, isolation in the international community and an escalation that would threaten European and international security," Hagel said, according to the statement.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, in a statement, said he spoke early in the day with acting Ukraine President Oleksandr Turchynov "to assure him he had the strong support of the United States."
Kerry said he also commended "the new government for showing the utmost restraint in the face of the clear and present danger to the integrity of their state, and the assaults on their sovereignty."
American condemnation of Russia's military actions and Obama's assertion that Russia is violating international law reflect increased tension that has been building since 2009, when the then-new administration said it was trying to "reset" US relations with Russia.
Now, in calling off the US preparations for the G-8 talks scheduled June 4-5 in Sochi - near the site of the just concluded Winter Olympics - Obama raised the prospect of a boycott that could derail those talks. Like the Olympics, Putin considers the meeting of the world's seven leading industrialized democracies, plus Russia, further evidence of global acceptance of his nation.
A US boycott could cause some of the other participants - Britain, France, Germany and Japan among them - to cancel their participation. That would be seen as a global rejection of Russia's actions and a personal slap in the face to Putin.
Obama also made separate calls yesterday to French President Francois Hollande and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the White House said. The leaders "affirmed the importance of unity within the international community in support of international law, and the future of Ukraine and its democracy," a White House statement said.
In his call with Putin, Obama urged the Russian president to begin talks with Ukraine, with the help of international observers and the auspices of the United Nations Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent member.
"The people of Ukraine have the right to determine their own future," Obama told Putin, according to the White House statement. It said the US was proceeding to work with the International Monetary Fund and Ukraine on its request for about $15 billion in loans to help bring financial stability to the country as it prepares for elections.
US lawmakers from both parties are urging Obama to lead an international effort to impose diplomatic and economic sanctions on Russia if it attacks Ukraine, though they stopped short of calling for armed intervention.
Following through with a boycott of the G-8 meeting and the freezing of assets of senior Russian officials are among further actions that Obama should pursue, the US lawmakers said.
The president "must lead a meaningful, unified response with our European allies to bring an immediate halt to these provocative Russian actions, which threaten international peace and security," Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said yesterday in a statement released before the White House provided details of Obama's call with Putin.
Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, recommended the use of international observers on the ground. Such neutral parties could reduce the risk that Russia would make a false claim of provocative acts by Ukraine, and use it as an excuse for further violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, he said.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 presidential nominee defeated by Obama and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called on the president "to rally our European and NATO allies to make clear what costs Russia will face for its aggression and to impose those consequences without further delay."
McCain, who often has pushed for Obama to be more forceful in responding to international crises such as the civil war in Syria, stopped short of calling for military action, though. He said in a statement yesterday that "there is a range of serious options at our disposal at this time without the use of military force."
Most US lawmakers, in line with public opinion, are wary of additional US military intervention after more than a decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Congress was poised to reject Obama's request for military action in Syria last September, though planned votes were scuttled as the US and Russia brokered a deal intended to rid that country of chemical weapons.
A New York Times/CBS poll released on September 9 found that 62 percent of Americans said the US shouldn't take the leading role in the world in trying to solve international conflicts. The poll of 1,011 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz was among lawmakers proposing that Obama and European allies remove Russia from the G-8. "If we were serious about standing up to Putin's power grab, we would immediately suspend Russian membership in the Group of Eight, which should consist of nations that can contribute to a civilized order," he said in a statement on Feb. 28.
Joining in that call yesterday were Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, and Representative Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican.