As Russia consolidated its hold on Crimea, raising its flag over seized military bases and detaining ousted Ukrainian commanders on Sunday, President Barack Obama and his European allies prepared to meet here in an effort to develop a strong, united response to the Kremlin.
After Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the lightning annexation of the peninsula by President Vladimir Putin last week, Obama’s decision to convene the leaders of several European countries, along with Canada and Japan, brought the nations — once again the Group of 7, without Russia — together for the first time since the crisis in Ukraine upended the stability and security of Europe.
Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, acknowledged that the president’s weeklong trip, including a meeting with Pope Francis on Thursday and a stop in Saudi Arabia on Friday, would be overshadowed by Ukraine and the need to press for Western unity. Rice expressed confidence that the meeting in The Hague today would “deepen” coordination.
But as the United States ratchets up economic sanctions against Russia, it may prove difficult for Obama to bring along his European allies, who are more economically intertwined with Russia and ended their own summit meeting on Friday with no detailed mention of tougher sanctions.
A central question seems to be whether Western unity is more than a veneer of principled language and so-far mild sanctions, which, in the absence of any hint of a military response, has made the West seem powerless.
“It will expose the limitations within the European Union,” said Michael J. Geary, an assistant professor of modern Europe at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, noting that the bloc needs consensus among 28 member states that have disparate ways of dealing with Russia.
NATO and the European Union have been shocked but seem galvanized by Russia’s abrupt abandonment of the rules of cooperation and territorial integrity that have governed East-West relations for decades.
As the West has struggled to respond cohesively, Russia has moved assertively to establish control in Crimea.
On Sunday, the Russian Defense Ministry said the Russian flag was now flying over 189 military facilities in Crimea. It didn’t specify whether any Ukrainian military operations there remained under Ukrainian control.
At a Ukrainian marines base in Feodosia, troops were negotiating with Russian forces on handing over the base, Lt. Anatoly Mozgovoi said.
The marines were loading 50-caliber machine guns into armored personnel carriers to take them to the base armory, but Mozgovoi said they hope to hold on to heavy weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades and cannon.
“I think from my personal opinion, the Russian Federation has enough weapons,” he said.
In Donetsk, one of the major cities in eastern Ukraine, about 5,000 people demonstrated in favor of holding a referendum on secession and absorption into Russia.
Putin’s recent record of first coy, then bold moves has put Obama and his European allies on guard, even as they have struggled to coordinate. Caught flat-footed by the initial infiltration of Crimea, the United States seems increasingly alarmed about the 20,000 Russian troops that have massed along virtually the entire Ukrainian border.
Ukraine’s foreign minister said the chances of war are increasing; he cited the Russian troops on the border.
“We are ready to respond,” Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia said on ABC’s “This Week” program.
U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said that “it’s deeply concerning to see the Russian troop buildup along the border.”
In an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Blinken said: “It’s likely that what they’re trying to do is intimidate the Ukrainians. It’s possible that they’re preparing to move in.”
Crisis scenarios abound in a Europe alarmed by the Kremlin’s use of military muscle. Even normally dispassionate analysts have produced theories ranging from a thorough dismemberment of Moldova — which is already split by the pro-Kremlin enclave of Transnistria — to Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan over the weekend joined Syria and Venezuela and became the newest member of a select club of nations: those that have publicly backed the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Citing “the free will of the Crimean people,” the office of President Hamid Karzai said, “we respect the decision the people of Crimea took through a recent referendum that considers Crimea as part of the Russian Federation.”The Associated Press and Bloomberg contributed to this report.