G7 warns Russia of more sanctions if Ukraine crisis escalates


President Barack Obama and major industrialized allies warned Russia on Monday it faced damaging economic sanctions if President Vladimir Putin takes further action to destabilize Ukraine following the seizure of Crimea.

Leaders of the Group of Seven summit, meeting without Russia, agreed to hold their own summit this year instead of attending a planned G8 meeting in the Russian Olympic venue of Sochi, just along the Black Sea from Crimea, and to suspend their participation in the G8 until Russia changes course.

On a day when Kiev ordered its remaining troops to withdraw from Crimea and Russian forces used force to capture a marine base and a landing ship, leaders of the United States, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Japan and Canada condemned what they called “Russia's illegal attempt to annex Crimea in contravention of international law”.

They also agreed to work together to reduce their dependence on Russian oil and gas.

“We remain ready to intensify actions including coordinated sectoral sanctions that will have an increasingly significant impact on the Russian economy, if Russia continues to escalate this situation,” they said in a joint statement.

The G7 leaders, who met on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in The Hague, said they would meet again in Brussels in early June, the first time since Russia joined the G8 in 1998 that it will have been shut out of the annual summit of industrialized democracies.

Obama, who has imposed tougher sanctions on Moscow than European leaders over its takeover of the strategic peninsula, told reporters: “Europe and America are united in our support of the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people”.

“We're united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far,” he said of the visa bans and asset freezes slapped on senior Russian and Crimean officials.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sought to play down the G8 boycott.

“If our Western partners believe the format has exhausted itself, we don't cling to this format. We don't believe it will be a big problem if it doesn't convene,” he told reporters.

RESISTANCE ENDED

Earlier on Monday, Russian troops forced their way into a Ukrainian marine base in the port of Feodosia, overrunning one of the last remaining symbols of resistance, and later stormed and captured a Ukrainian landing ship, firing warning shots and stun grenades. No casualties were reported in either incident.

In Kiev, acting president Oleksander Turchinov told parliament the remaining Ukrainian troops and their families would be pulled out of the region in the face of “threats to the lives and health of our service personnel”.

That effectively ends any Ukrainian resistance, less than a month since Putin claimed Russia's right to intervene militarily on its neighbors' territory.

White House officials accompanying Obama expressed concern on Monday at what they said was a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine and warned that any further military intervention would trigger wider sanctions than the measures taken so far.

A U.S…. official said Moscow had some 20,000 soldiers near the border. Russian intervention in eastern or southern Ukraine would be the clearest trigger for additional sanctions, as would violence in Crimea, another U.S…. official said.

NATO also fears Putin may have designs on Transdniestria, a part of another former Soviet republic, Moldova.

Russia has said it is complying with international agreements on troop movements and has no plans to invade.

RUSSIA-UKRAINE TALKS

In what has become the biggest East-West confrontation since the Cold War, the United States and the European Union have imposed personal sanctions on some of Putin's closest political and business allies. But they have held back so far from measures designed to hit Russia's wider economy.

Obama also discussed the crisis at a meeting in The Hague with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has voiced support for Ukraine's sovereignty but refrained from criticizing Russia.

The West wants Beijing's diplomatic support in an effort to restrain Putin but while Xi called for a political solution, he did not harden China's position towards Moscow.

Russia formally annexed Crimea on March 21, five days after newly-installed pro-Moscow regional leaders held a referendum that yielded an overwhelming vote to join Russia. Kiev and the West denounced the annexation as illegal.

In one sign of a possible easing of tension, Lavrov agreed to hold a first meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart, Andriy Deshchytsya on the sidelines of the nuclear security summit.

The first 50 out of 100 observers dispatched by the pan-European OSCE security watchdog arrived in Ukraine on Monday to monitor potential trouble spots and report back to the 54-nation organization. Russia relented late last week and agreed on a mandate after prolonged wrangling, but the monitors will not be allowed to enter Crimea.

FURTHER COSTS

Western officials are now focused less on persuading Putin to relinquish Crimea – a goal that seems beyond reach – than on deterring him from seizing other parts of Ukraine.

Persuading Europeans to sign on to tougher sanctions could be difficult. The EU does 10 times as much trade with Russia as the United States, and is the biggest customer for Russian oil and gas. The EU's 28 members include countries with widely varying relationships to Moscow.

Central and east European countries that were once under Moscow's domination and have joined the EU in the last decade are mostly urging caution due to the risk to their economies.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU's most powerful leader, has taken a tough line with Putin and supported EU moves to reduce the bloc's long-term dependence on Russian energy.

The seizure of Crimea has been largely bloodless, apart from one Ukrainian soldier and one pro-Moscow militia member killed in a shootout last Tuesday.

In Feodosia, Ukrainian troops hugged each other in farewell on Monday after their base was overrun. Some chanted “Hurra! Hurra!” in defiance. One marine in full uniform who declined to identify himself wept and blamed the government in Kiev for the chaotic end to the standoff.

“Yesterday we had an agreement: we would lower our flag and the Russians would raise theirs. And this morning the Russians attacked, firing live ammunition. We had no weapons. We did not fire a round,” said one marine, Ruslan, who was with his wife Katya and 9-month-old son.

Despite the disruption to East-West relations, Washington wants other diplomatic business with Moscow to continue. U.S… Secretary of State John Kerry held talks with Lavrov after meeting the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, overseeing the destruction of Syria's toxic stockpile in action sponsored jointly by Washington and Moscow.

Russia hit back symbolically at Canada, announcing personal sanctions against 13 Canadian officials in retaliation for Ottawa's role in Western sanctions so far. It has already taken similar measures against senior U.S… Congress members but not yet European officials.

Additional reporting by Anthony Deutsch, Jeff Mason, Justyna Pawlak and Andreas Rinke in The Hague, Gabriela Baczynska in Simferopol, Natalia Zinets in Kiev; writing by Paul Taylor; editing by David Stamp and Philippa Fletcher

Putin basks in isolation over Syria as Obama’s charm falls flat


At the end of a tense two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama – slumped over and serious – tried to lighten the mood with a joke about their favorite sports.

“And finally, we compared notes on President Putin's expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball,” the U.S. president told reporters at the G8 summit, after the two men gave formal statements emphasizing their common ground rather than their sharp differences on how to end the Syrian crisis.

“And we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover,” Obama said.

Putin – who folded his hands and glowered through most of the exchange – was having none of it. He waited for the audience to finish laughing, smiled icily and stuck in his spear.

“The president wants to relax me with his statement of age,” retorted Putin.

Few expected any diplomatic breakthroughs from the meeting in Northern Ireland, less than a week after Obama's administration announced it would provide military support to rebels fighting Moscow's ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.

But Putin — who scowled, lectured and fidgeted while resisting the forced bonhomie of the two-day summit with the leaders of world's richest nations — seemed positively to relish his isolation.

It was a vintage display of Putin's world view forged since the Soviet Union's fall in 1991: the United States will inevitably overreach, and Moscow must always step forward to demonstrate the limits of U.S. power.

His position won the former KGB spy plaudits at home, where he is trying to reassert his authority after protests and in the face of a stuttering economy.

“I think he got all the bonuses domestically. He held his head high, stood tall and did what he pledged to do – to be very firm but not confrontational,” said Dmitry Trenin, a political analysts at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.

Putin clearly calculated that he had nothing to gain by making concessions over Syria, and little to lose if Russia was further alienated in a rich nations' club where it has looked the odd-one out since it became a fully fledged member 15 years ago.

“RESET”

U.S. officials played down the rebuff, describing the Putin-Obama meeting as “businesslike” and emphasizing the common ground over a sectarian civil war in which the two presidents are now both committed to arming the opposing sides.

“We both want to see an end to the conflict. We both want to see stability. We don't want to see extremists gain a foothold,” said Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser.

“I think both leaders went out of their way to underscore that they can work together on this issue,” Rhodes said. “If they can project a message that they have a convergence of views as it relates to a political negotiation, that keeps the possibility, the prospect of that political track alive.”

But even their one joint initiative faced a setback. One source at the summit confirmed that Syrian peace talks called last month by Moscow and Washington, initially meant to be held in June, then July – were now postponed until August at least.

The tense exchange between Putin and Obama marks full circle since the administration of the newly-elected Obama called for a “reset” in ties with Russia in 2009 after a row between the Cold War foes over Russia's 2008 war against U.S.-ally Georgia.

Obama has touted the Russia reset – in which his then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her Russian counterpart with a big red “reset” button – as one of his signature foreign achievements. (Clinton's aides notoriously mistranslated the button and labeled it “overload” in Russian.)

WE ARE GOING TO DELIVER

Putin arrived the night before the summit and made his unrelenting position clear at a press conference with his host, Britain's David Cameron.

Putin hammered home his point that arming Syrian rebels was reckless by zeroing in on an incident from last month in which a rebel fighter was filmed biting on the entrails of an enemy.

“One does not really need to support people who not only kill their enemies but open up their bodies, eat their intestines in front of the camera,” he said as Cameron stood by.

From the outset, Putin was isolated at the summit.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper accused Putin of supporting “thugs” and said Syria would be discussed by the other seven powers, with Russia as a “plus one”. Putin's foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov fired back, saying the Canadian's remarks came “from the position of an outside observer”.

After the bilateral meeting with Obama, Putin went to a dinner in a lodge on the shore of Lough Erne where the leaders discussed Syria over a dinner of crab, fillet of beef, and whisky-laced custard.

Putin refused to accept any public declaration that could imply Assad would go. He won: the final communique on Syria did not even mention Assad's name.

He also defended Russia's arms shipments to Syria and suggested that more might be coming: “We are supplying weapons under legal contracts to the legal government. That is the government of President Assad. And if we are going to sign such contracts, we are going to deliver,” he said.

Western officials still suggest that Moscow's alliance with Assad is not as strong as Putin's remarks imply. “Clearly Putin doesn't hold back with his views,” said one Western official who tried to play down the disagreements.

“Don't expect Vladimir Putin to pick up the phone to Damascus and say 'the game's over',” he said. “The Russians have deliberately and utterly not tied themselves to him (Assad) as an individual and have always given themselves some wriggle room.”

Western officials have suggested for months that Moscow might soon drop Assad, only to find Putin as staunch as ever, even when the war was going the rebels' way. Now, with Assad's forces having seized battlefield momentum in recent months, there seems less reason than ever for Moscow to ditch him.

Putin has another reason to want to look tough abroad, to consolidate support at home at a time when the faltering economy is hurting his standing.

“Despite the emotions, the summit was in many respects a success for Russian diplomacy,” the business daily Vedomosti wrote, suggesting Russia had made no concessions and the West had shown it was not ready to act if Moscow was not on board.

Moskovsky Komsomolets, a popular daily with a reputation for catching the public mood, was more uneasy: “Putin is alone again,” it wrote. “But do we need to be sorry about it?”

Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn, Jeff Mason, Roberta Rampton and Alexei Anishchuk in Enniskillen; Editing by Peter Graff

Russia’s Putin torpedoes G8 efforts to oust Assad


Russia's Vladimir Putin derailed Barack Obama's efforts to win backing for the downfall of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad at a G8 summit on Tuesday, warning the West that arms supplied to the rebels could be used for attacks on European soil.

After two days of intense talks that fell far short of what Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron had been hoping for, Putin fumed against Western moves to supply weapons to rebels while defending his own supplies of arms for Assad.

“We are supplying weapons under legal contracts to the legal government. That is the government of President Assad. And if we are going to sign such contracts, we are going to deliver,” the Russian president said.

Putin, isolated at the summit, repeatedly clashed with other leaders over the fate of Assad and resisted pressure to agree to anything that would imply Assad should step down. In the end, a G8 communique did not even mention Assad's name.

The summit in a secluded golf resort in Northern Ireland ended with G8 leaders calling for peace talks to be held as soon as possible to resolve the Syrian civil war. This has broadly been their position for months.

No date was mentioned for a peace conference called by Moscow and Washington, which was supposed to take place next month but now appears to be on hold, after the United States announced last week that it would arm the rebels.

A source at the summit said the peace conference would now be put off at least until August.

Putin struck a defiant tone: he hinted that Obama had tried to isolate Russia, that other leaders were divided, and that plans to send arms to Syrian rebels could lead to murders such as that of a British soldier on a busy London street last month.

“British people have lately witnessed a tragedy, and we lived through it together, when right in the streets of London a British army serviceman was brutally murdered outside his barracks,” Putin said.

“Is it these people that the Europeans want to supply arms? What happens next with those weapons? Who will control in which hands they end up? They could possibly (end up) in Europe.”

Obama and his allies want Assad to cede power while Putin, whose rhetoric has become increasingly anti-Western since he was re-elected last year, believes that would be disastrous at a time when no clear transition plan exists.

Russia has been Assad's most powerful supporter shielding the Syrian leader from Western action as his forces struggle to crush an uprising in which 93,000 people have been killed since March 2011 and which is now drawing in neighboring countries.

It has vetoed United Nations Security Council resolutions censuring the Assad government, widely criticized for the ferocity with which it has waged the war.

Syria is one of Moscow's last allies in the Middle East. Its influence has declined since the collapse of the Soviet Union but the Russian navy still has a base at the Mediterranean port of Tartus.

The United States and its European and Gulf Arab allies have repeatedly called on Assad to surrender power and predicted his downfall. Recent battlefield gains by government forces against the rebels make that prospect unlikely anytime soon.

DISASTROUS CONSEQUENCES

In the final document, G8 leaders called on the Syrian authorities and the opposition to commit to destroying all organizations affiliated with al Qaeda – a reflection of growing concern in the West that Islamist militants were playing a more dominant role in the rebel ranks.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who chaired the summit, said separately after the talks that the West believed strongly that there was no place for Assad in a future Syria.

“It is unthinkable that President Assad can play any part in the future of his country. He has blood on his hands,” Cameron told reporters at a podium perched on the shore of a picturesque lough flanked by rolling hills.

“You can't imagine a Syria where this man continues to rule having done such awful things to his people.”

Cameron said the main breakthrough was an agreement that a transitional government with executive powers was needed and a deal to call for an investigation into chemical weapons use.

Both, however, are old positions that have already been agreed. The West and Russia still disagree over whether Assad should be excluded from the transitional government, and over how to carry out chemical weapons investigations.

“We remain committed to achieving a political solution to the crisis based on a vision for a united, inclusive and democratic Syria,” the final communique read.

“We strongly endorse the decision to hold as soon as possible the Geneva conference on Syria,” it said, without saying when the conference should be held.

For his part, Putin renewed criticism of U.S. plans to send weapons to Syrian rebels, which the Obama administration announced after concluding that Assad's forces had used nerve gas. Putin said other G8 leaders had expressed doubts that Assad's forces had used chemical weapons.

“Let me assure you that not all G8 members believe it was used by the Syrian army. Some agree with our opinion that there's no such data,” Putin said.

During the talks, Western powers faced strong resistance from Putin as they tried to hash out a statement with teeth that all G8 leaders could agree on.

Looking mostly tense throughout the meeting, Putin had faced a barrage of criticism over his Syria stance. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper accused him of supporting “thugs” in Damascus, while his meeting with Obama was frosty and both looked uncomfortable.

Russia's position is that only Syrians can decide Assad's fate. The West considers that to be cover for allowing him to stay in power. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, speaking on the sidelines, said any debate about Assad's role in the resolution of the conflict was unthinkable.

“This would be not just unacceptable for the Russian side, but we are convinced that it would be utterly wrong, harmful and would completely upset the political balance,” Ryabkov said.

Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn, William Schomberg, Roberta Rampton, Alexei Anishchuk, Jeff Mason and Kate Holton in Enniskillen; Writing by Maria Golovnina and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Peter Graff

1967 lines reference pulled from G8 statement at Canada’s request


A reference to the 1967 lines as the basis for a future border was reportedly removed at Canada’s request from a G8 summit statement calling for renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Reuters cited unnamed diplomatic sources who said that the language was stricken at Canada’s insistence. The G8 summit, which is taking place this year in Deauville, France, brings together leaders of eight of the world’s leading economic powers.

“The Canadians were really very adamant, even though Obama expressly referred to 1967 borders in his speech last week,” a European diplomat told Reuters.

In his May 19 Middle East policy speech, President Obama called for the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps to be the basis for a future border between Israel and a Palestinian state. This formulation drew objections from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called the 1967 lines “indefensible”  for Israel.

Obama’s call has been praised by some of the leaders of G8 member states, including British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Canada’s leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is known for his strongly pro-Israel views.

Reuters obtained a copy of the final G8 statement, which expresses “strong support for the vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace outlined by President Obama.”

G8 calls for release of Gilad Shalit


The Group of Eight leading industrialized nations called on Thursday for the immediately release of Gilad Shalit, after Egyptian-brokered talks to secure the kidnapped Israeli soldier’s release had come to a standstill.

The G8, meeting in Italy, also called for the immediate opening of the Gaza Strip’s border crossings to allow the entry of humanitarian aid, goods and people into the Hamas-ruled territory. The nations added that this move must not compromise Israel’s safety. Read the full story at HAARETZ.com.