WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States on Wednesday warned Russia against a military intervention in Ukraine, saying such a move would be a "grave mistake," as troops in western Russia were placed on high alert for massive new war games in the area, including near the Russian-Ukrainian border.
In delivering the blunt message, Secretary of State John Kerry also announced that the Obama administration was planning $1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine and would consider additional direct assistance for the former Soviet republic following unrest that led to the ouster of its Russian-backed president.
Kerry also renewed U.S. demands that Moscow withdraw troops from disputed enclaves in another former Soviet republic, Georgia, and urged Georgia to further integrate with Europe and NATO.
The warning, aid announcement and nudge westward for Georgia all came amid growing tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine and were likely to fuel already-heightened Russian suspicions over Western intentions in its backyard.
Kerry insisted, however, that that U.S. policy toward Ukraine, Georgia and the other states that once made up the Soviet Union was not aimed at reducing Russia's influence in its neighborhood. Instead, he maintained that U.S. encouragement for former Soviet states to integrate with the West was driven by America's desire to see their people realize aspirations for freedom in robust democracies with strong economies.
"This is not 'Rocky IV'," Kerry said, referring to the iconic 1985 Sylvester Stallone film in which an aging American boxer takes on a daunting Soviet muscleman. "It is not a zero-sum game. We do not view it through the lens of East-West, Russia-U.S. or anything else. We view it as an example of people within a sovereign nation who are expressing their desire to choose their future. And that's a very powerful force."
Noting that Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered large-scale military exercises in what many see as a show of force or possible prelude to intervention in Ukraine, Kerry said it would be hypocritical for Moscow to send troops into another country after spending the last several years opposing foreign military action in places like Libya and Syria.
"For a country that has spoken out so frequently in the last year ... against foreign intervention in Libya, Syria, elsewhere, it would be important for them to heed those warnings as they think about options in the sovereign nation of Ukraine." Kerry said. "Any kind of military intervention that would violate the sovereign territorial integrity of Ukraine would be a huge, a grave mistake. And the territorial integrity of Ukraine needs to be respected."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest urged "outside actors" to respect Ukraine's sovereignty. Without specifically mentioning Russia, Earnest also called on others in the region to end "provocative rhetoric and actions."
On assistance, Kerry said it was "urgent to move forward" to help Ukraine but also said it was urgent for Ukraine's interim authorities to enact reforms, curb corruption, and prepare free and fair elections. He said the planned $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees would be accompanied by additional aid to be determined later in consultation with Congress, as well as about $1.5 billion from the European Union, along with loans from global financial institutions.
Kerry made the comments in a round-table interview with a small group of reporters at the State Department where he presided over a meeting of the U.S.-Georgia Strategic Partnership Commission earlier Wednesday.
At that meeting, he announced additional, but unspecified, U.S. assistance "to help support Georgia's European and Euro-Atlantic vision." And he denounced Russia's continued military presence in the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in violation of the cease-fire that ended the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict.
He stressed that the U.S. supports Georgia's membership in NATO — something opposed by Russia — and wants to see it sign a partnership agreement with the European Union later this year. A similar proposed agreement between Ukraine and the E.U. was among the catalysts that led to the deadly unrest in Kiev that unseated Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych last week.
Some Russian officials accuse the West of being behind the revolt against Yanukovych. U.S. and European officials have denied such allegations.
In addition to Putin ordering the military exercises, Russia's defense ministry said it would take steps to strengthen security at facilities of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, where there have been clashes between pro- and anti-Russian demonstrators. Pro-Russian protesters have spoken of secession, and a Russian lawmaker has stoked their passions by promising that Russia will protect them.
Those steps have raised fears of possible Russian military intervention in Ukraine along the lines of its 2008 operation in Georgia, which led to the occupations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and was roundly condemned by the United States and its European allies.
Kerry, sitting next to Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, affirmed that the U.S. "remains steadfast in our support for Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
"We continue to object to Russia's occupation, militarization and borderization of Georgian territory, and we call on Russia to fulfil its obligations under the 2008 cease-fire agreement, including the withdrawal of forces and free access for humanitarian assistance," Kerry said.
AP National Security Writer Lara Jakes contributed to this report.