WASHINGTON (CBS News/CBSDC/AP) — President Barack Obama said that “these are challenging times” as the crisis between Russia and Ukraine escalates.
Speaking at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House Friday, Obama said that they are “united in our support” for Ukraine.
“We are united in our determination to impose costs on Russia’s actions, including coordinating sanctions,” Obama said.
Obama called on Russia to tell pro-Russian para-military groups to lay down their arms in Ukraine.
“We want to see a diplomatic resolution to this situation in Ukraine,” Obama said, adding that Russia will face increasing costs and growing isolation if they don’t act.
Obama warns that Russia will face more severe sanctions if they impede Ukraine’s elections this month.
“If in fact we see the disruptions and the destabilization continuing so severely it impedes elections on May 25, we won’t have a choice but to move forward with additional, more severe sanctions,” Obama said.
Obama noted: “The goal is not to punish Russia, the goal is to give them an incentive to choose a better course.”
Both Europe and the United States imposed additional sanctions against Russia over the past week.
Obama’s comments come as Ukraine launched what appeared to be its first major assault against pro-Russian forces who have seized government buildings in the country’s east, with fighting breaking out Friday in a city that has become the focus of the insurgency. Three deaths were reported in early fighting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the offensive “effectively destroyed the last hope for the implementation of the Geneva agreements” which were intended to defuse the crisis.
Two Ukrainian helicopters were shot down and their pilots killed, both sides said. The Ukrainian Security Service said one of the helicopters was shot down with a surface-to-air missile, which it said undercut Russia’s claims that the city is under control of civilians who took up arms.
Stella Khorosheva, a spokeswoman for the pro-Russian militants, said one of their men was killed and another injured. She offered no further details.
Peskov said the Kremlin had sent an envoy to Ukraine’s southeast to negotiate the release of foreign military observers who were captured by pro-Russian militia in Slavyansk.
In comments to Russian news agencies, Peskov did not specify where Vladimir Lukin was sent to but said the Kremlin has not been able to get in touch with him since Ukraine launched the offensive.
The action came a day after Putin said that Ukraine should withdraw its military from the eastern and southern regions of the country. Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops along the Ukrainian border as it warns Ukraine’s military not to move against the insurgents in the east.
The Ukrainian Security Service said its forces were fighting “highly skilled foreign military men” in Slavyansk.
The Security Service said one helicopter was shot down with a surface-to-air missile, a sophisticated weapon, which they said countered Russia’s claims that the city is under control of civilians who took up arms.
The Ukrainian interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said on his official Facebook page that government troops met fierce resistance, but had managed to take control of nine checkpoints on roads around Slavyansk.
As the Ukrainian troops advanced on checkpoints, pro-Russian militants briefly held a group of Western journalists trying to enter Slavyansk at one such outpost near the smaller city of Horlivka,including the CBS News crew.
Correspondent Clarissa Ward and producer Erin Lyall both posted messages on their Twitter feeds saying they had been released unharmed.
The official spokesman for the military wing of the pro-Russian forces, who will give only his first name, Vladislav, said fighting had broken out at several points around the city. He said government armored vehicles were seen on roads leading into Slavyansk and claimed that Ukrainian troops had made incursions into the city itself.
Details of these claims could not be independently confirmed.
On the road leading into Slavyansk from Kramatorsk to the south, an Associated Press reporter saw six Ukrainian armored vehicles parked on the side of the road.
An AP cameraman saw black plumes of smoke on the edge of the city. An emergency siren had sounded at dawn.
The center of Slavyansk appeared quiet but empty and tense Friday morning.
The armed element of the insurgency is focused on Slavyansk, a city 100 miles west of Russia in which seven European military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe remain held by pro-Russia gunmen.
Putin said Thursday that Ukraine should withdraw its military from the eastern and southern regions of the country.
Hours later, Ukraine’s acting president ordered that the military draft be renewed, citing “threats of encroachment on the nation’s territorial integrity” and interference by Russia in its internal affairs.
Moscow has consistently denounced Ukrainian security forces’ largely ineffectual operation against the eastern insurgents and warned against committing violence against civilians.
In a telephone conversation with Merkel, Putin said the removal of military units was the “main thing,” but it was unclear if that could be construed as an outright demand.
Earlier in the week, the acting president said police and security forces had been effectively “helpless” against insurgents in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the heart of the unrest, and that efforts should be focused on preventing the instability from spreading to other parts of the country.
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