(CNSNews.com) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday accused the Ukraine military of “infiltrating Crimean territory” and said the U.S. and Europe should rein in their “clients” in Kiev.
Speaking alongside visiting Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, Putin confirmed reports that two Russian military personnel had been killed during “this attempt to infiltrate Crimea” – which he said had been thwarted.
The United States, and most of the international community, does not recognize Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea, viewing it as sovereign Ukrainian territory.
At Wednesday’s State Department briefing, spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau was asked whether, since the U.S. does not recognize the annexation, it does not believe Ukraine is entitled to move freely in the peninsula.
“If you don’t recognize the annexation of Crimea by Russia, doesn’t Ukraine have the right to send anybody it wants into what is, after all, Ukrainian territory?” a reporter asked.
Although Trudeau had reiterated in unequivocal terms that “Crimea is and will always be part of Ukraine,” she chose not to answer the question, instead referring queries about the reported incident to the Ukrainian government.
“What I would say is that we would refer you to the government of Ukraine to speak to these reports of actions,” she said.
Trudeau also declined to take a position on the reported incursion, or on Russia’s reaction in thwarting it.
She was asked about the effect of such actions and rhetoric on tensions in the region.
“Is it a good thing for Ukrainians to be sending people into Crimea, and is it a good thing for Russia to be repulsing that and then making harsh statements about it?” a reporter asked.
In response, Trudeau again referred queries to the Ukrainian government.
In Moscow, Putin said Russia’s intelligence services had thwarted a “foolish and criminal” infiltration attempt by “a sabotage and reconnaissance group from the Ukrainian Defense Ministry.”
He said Russia could not “ignore such matters.”
“However, I would like to appeal to our American and European partners too. I think it is now clear to all that the authorities in Kiev today are not looking for a solution to the problem through negotiations, but are resorting to terror,” he said. “This is a very worrying development.”
“Most important of all, those who support the current authorities in Kiev must decide just want they want,” Putin said.
“Do they want their clients to continue carrying out provocations of this kind, or do they want to genuinely reach a peaceful settlement? If they do want this, and I very much hope they do, it is time to finally take some real steps to put the needed pressure on the current authorities in Kiev.”
Ukraine’s foreign ministry called the Kremlin’s accusations “groundless,” saying it was using a “pretext” to justify further aggression against Ukraine.
It also called a Russian military buildup in Crimea and eastern Ukraine and along the Russia-Ukraine border “a cause of particular concern.”
“This situation signals an imminent threat to the peace and stability not only in Ukraine but also in the entire region,” the ministry said, urging the international community to apply pressure on Moscow, to “prevent a new round of aggression against Ukraine.”
Putin holds the West responsible for the removal of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president in 2014.
After Viktor Yanukovich fled Kiev amid anti-government protests and sought shelter in Russia, the Kremlin backed an armed separatist movement in eastern Ukraine and orchestrated a referendum in the strategic Crimea peninsula, home since the 18th Century to the Black Sea Fleet.
A large majority of voters supported separating Crimea from Ukraine and Russia annexed the territory.
Neither the referendum, the result, nor the annexation were recognized by a majority of the world’s governments.
The U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution by a 100-11 vote (with 58 member-states abstaining) calling on governments not to recognize any change in Crimea’s status, or take any actions that may be interpreted as doing so.
The annexation led to U.S. visa bans and asset freezes on senior Russian figures and other sanctions. But, despite the punitive measures and the West’s refusal to recognize the annexation, Crimea remains effectively part of the Russian Federation.
Trudeau said Wednesday the U.S. position is well-known.
“Crimea is and will always be part of Ukraine. We condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea, and our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns the peninsula to Ukraine,” she said.