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Putin’s reasons for Ukraine incursion ‘not fooling anybody,’ Obama says

Russian President Vladimir Putin talks to reporters at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow March 4, 2014. Putin said on Tuesday Russia reserved the right to use all options in Ukraine to protect compatriots living in "terror" but that Moscow would use force only as a last resort.

RIA Novosti/REUTERS

More tough talk but no new action on Tuesday as President Barack Obama accused his Russian counterpart of not "fooling anybody" by claiming the Kremlin's troops were protecting ethnic Russians from Ukrainian fascists.

In Kiev, as a show of solidarity with the new pro-western Ukrainian government, U.S. State Secretary John Kerry blasted Russia for using "aggression and intimidation as a first resort," and offered a $1-billion (U.S.) aid package to help Ukraine.

But with Russia firmly in control of Crimea, the strategic Black Sea peninsula grafted to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev 60 years ago, President Vladimir Putin claimed full justification for swift, decisive intervention in territory Russia has regarded as within its sphere of influence for centuries.

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Mr. Putin dismissed Western threats to slap sanctions on Russia, warning they would backfire.

"In the modern world, where everything is linked and everyone depends on others in one way or another, we can incur damage to one another, but it would be mutual damage," he said in a press conference.

Some signs of Western joint action emerged. At the request of Ukraine, the United States and 14 other nations on Tuesday formed a military observer mission to monitor the tense Crimea region, and a U.S. official said the team planned to leave within 24 hours.

Daniel Baer, the chief U.S. delegate to the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE), told Associated Press each country is contributing two individuals. But with more OSCE member nations expected to join, he said the mission could grow beyond the present 30 people.

The 57-nation OSCE works on consensus, so most monitoring missions would have to be approved by all nations, including Russia, which is a member. But a provision of its regulations allows member countries to ask others to send unarmed military monitors in case of emergencies, and Mr. Baer said that Ukraine used that rule.

NATO will also meet with the Russian ambassador to NATO on Wednesday, through the NATO-Russia Council, the official forum for discussions and contacts between the alliance and its one-time Cold War foe.

At an elementary school in snowy Washington to unveil his budget, Mr. Obama dismissed Russian justifications. "If in fact there is any evidence out there that Russian speakers or Russian natives or Russian nationals are in any way being threatened, there are ways of dealing with that through international mechanisms," he said, mocking Moscow's claims. "I know President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations … but I don't think that's fooling anybody."

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In Kiev, Mr. Kerry talked even tougher than Mr. Obama, but also left room for an accord with Moscow. "If Russia does not choose to de-escalate," Mr. Kerry said, then the western allies "will have absolutely no choice but to join us to continue to expand upon steps we have taken in recent days in order to isolate Russia politically, diplomatically and economically."

The "de-escalation" he called for seemed to be nothing more than Russian troops, who have already got Crimea firmly under control backed by a broadly supportive ethnic Russian majority, to return to their leased bases inside Crimea, including the sprawling home of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol.

Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry, even as they heaped scorn on Mr. Putin's justification for sending in the Russian army, made a point of recognizing that Moscow has a legitimate stake in the Crimea and on behalf of ethnic Russians.

"There's a better way for Russia to pursue its legitimate interests in Ukraine," Mr. Kerry 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."

With a report from Associated Press

Follow me on Twitter: @PaulKoring

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