Susan Rice: Russian Military Intervention in Ukraine ‘Would Be a Grave Mistake’

Patrick Goodenough | February 23, 2014 | 5:05pm EST
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Flowers cover the ground where protesters were killed in a recent clash with riot police in Kiev's Independence Square, the epicenter of the country's recent unrest, on a mourning day, Ukraine, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

( – Any Russian decision to send forces into Ukraine to restore a government it views as favorable “would be a grave mistake,” national security advisor Susan Rice said Sunday, after dramatic turns in the country’s standoff saw President Viktor Yanukovich effectively removed from office.

“It’s not in the interest of Ukraine or of Russia or of Europe or of the United States to see a country split,” Rice said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “It’s in nobody’s interests to see violence return and the situation escalate.”

Asked whether President Obama had told President Vladimir Putin to “back off” when the two spoke by phone on Friday, Rice replied, “The president’s message was, ‘Look, we have a shared interest in a Ukraine that remains unified, whole, independent, and is able to exercise the will of its people freely.’ At that point, Putin was in agreement.”

Russia and the U.S. have accused each other of interference in the crisis, which began when Yanukovich last November ditched a plan to strengthen economic and political relations with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. Opposition supporters occupied Kiev’s independence square to protest the decision, which was cemented when Putin offered Yanukovich a $15 billion bailout.

After days of deadly violence Ukraine’s parliamentary speaker on Sunday assumed presidential powers in line with a vote by the legislature, and the country’s best-known opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, was released from prison. (In a trial viewed by the U.S. and E.U. as political, Tymoshenko was convicted in 2011 of abuse of office and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment.)

There were fears that pro-Russian parts of eastern Ukraine may try to break away, and that Russia could use the turmoil as a pretext to send in troops, ostensibly coming to the aid of Russian citizens in the Crimea. Russia used that argument when it invaded Georgia in August 2008, in support of inhabitants to two pro-Russian breakaway regions.

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is located at the Crimean port of Sevastopol, where its lease had been due to expire in 2017 before Yanukovich extended it for another 25 years.

Asked whether the U.S. had placed itself on the side of the protestors, Rice said the U.S. was “on the side of the Ukrainian people.”

“And the Ukrainian people have indicated from the outset, three months ago, when this began, that President Yanukovich, at the time, his decision to turn away from Europe, was not the choice of the Ukrainian people. The Ukrainian people expressed themselves peacefully. They were met with violence. And that did not end well for Yanukovich.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in Moscow in December 2013. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

Host David Gregory asked Rice why Americans should not view Putin as “the enemy,” given his policies regarding Ukraine, Syria and his decision to grant asylum to NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

“We have to be very pragmatic,” she replied. “And President Obama has been exceedingly pragmatic about our dealings with Russia. There are areas where we can cooperate with them. There are areas where we disagree bitterly with them.”

In areas where the U.S. does strongly disagree with Russia’s actions, Rice said that it has confronted Moscow.

“The president is very plain and very forceful in his dealings with Putin. But it’s not necessary, nor is it in our interests, to return to a Cold War construct, which is long out of date, and that doesn’t reflect the realities of the 21st century.”

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by phone on Sunday with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, and “underscored the United States’ expectation that Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and democratic freedom of choice will be respected by all states,” the State Department said in a release.

“Secretary Kerry expressed our hope that the Russian Federation will join with us, the European Union and its member states, and other concerned countries to help Ukraine turn the page and emerge from this crisis stronger, united and moving forward through new elections and critically needed reforms,” it said.

Lavrov’s ministry meanwhile recalled Russia’s ambassador from Kiev for consultations, citing “the need for all-round analysis of the existing state of affairs.”

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