Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP/Getty Images

G-7 meets as Russia tightens grip on Crimea

World leaders discuss crisis as Russian troops mass on eastern border and Ukraine orders troops out of Crimea

Leaders of the Group of Seven nations began crisis talks in the Netherlands Monday in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, after NATO’s top military commander warned that Russian troops in the region posed a wider threat to other former Soviet states.

The talks — on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit of the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — did not involve Russia, which joined the group in 1998.

In a show of Western solidarity, President Barack Obama declared shortly after arriving in the Netherlands Monday morning that the U.S. and Europe stand together behind Ukraine.

"We're united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far," Obama said after meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

Obama's deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said in a press statement that the G-7 meeting was aimed at foreshadowing "what economic sanctions Russia will be faced with if it continues down this course." He said the countries also would discuss international efforts to assist the fledgling Ukrainian government, as well as what the G-7's relationship with Russia will be if the current standoff continues.

But Rhodes indicated that the U.S. and other nations were not prepared to formally kick Russia out of the Group of Eight. "The door is open to Russia to deescalate the situation, to abide by international law, to come back in line with the international community," he said. "I think the message is, so long as they don't do that, they're outside the rules of the road."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he saw no "great tragedy" if Moscow was expelled from the Group of Eight.

"If our Western partners think that this format has outlived itself, then so be it. At the very least, we are not trying to hold on to this format, and we see no great tragedy if it (the G8) does not meet," Lavrov told reporters after holding separate talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Ukraine's interim Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya. Details of the discussion were not immediately available.

Ukraine forces exit Crimea

Click here for the latest on Ukraine.

While world leaders met to discuss Crimea, Ukraine’s fledgling government on Monday ordered troops to withdraw from Crimea, ending days of wavering as Russian troops consolidate control over the peninsula.

Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchnynov said the Defense Ministry was instructed to redeploy all troops in Crimea to Ukraine’s mainland, in remarks confirmed by his office.

Russian forces have been systematically seizing Ukrainian ships and military installations in Crimea, including a naval base near the eastern Crimean port of Feodosia, where two wounded servicemen were taken captive on Monday and as many as 80 were detained on site, Ukrainian officials said.

The situation between Russia and neighboring nations could escalate much further, NATO’s top military commander said Sunday, adding that Russia had amassed a force on Ukraine’s eastern border large enough to pose a threat to other former Soviet republics.

"The force that is at the Ukrainian border now to the east is very, very sizable and very, very ready," said Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander. "There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transnistria if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome."

White House aide and deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken echoed Breedlove’s concerns in an interview with CNN Sunday. He said it’s possible that the United States is looking at providing military support to Ukraine but that "it’s very unlikely to change Russia’s calculus and prevent an invasion." 

The European Union and the U.S. have imposed a number of visa bans and asset freezes on some members of the inner circle of Russian President Vladimir Putin and are considering more measures.

In an interview Monday with the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, Obama said, "It’s important for Russia to understand that the international community will not accept its violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Moreover, if Russia continues on this path, the sanctions we have begun to impose, the pressure on Russia’s economy and Russia’s diplomatic isolation will only increase. This is the basic choice that Russia has to make."

He also said, "The Ukrainian people do not have to choose between East and West. On the contrary, it’s important that Ukraine have good relations with the United States, Russia and Europe. As I’ve said, the future of Ukraine ought to be decided by the people of Ukraine. 

"That’s why the United States and so many countries around the world have condemned the Russian military intervention in Ukraine.  It’s absolutely unacceptable and a violation of international law."

The German finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, said on Sunday that the EU was united in its readiness to impose economic sanctions should the crisis escalate.

"Russia has a lot more to lose in the medium term than the West, than Europe or the United States," he said, adding that the aim was to uphold international law and it was "of secondary importance whether there is an economic or financial cost."

Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s deputy defense minister, said on Sunday, "Russian armed forces do not undertake any undeclared military activity that would threaten the security of neighboring countries."

One Ukrainian serviceman has been killed and two others wounded since Russian forces started seizing control of military facilities in Crimea last week.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said most of its bases in Crimea are now occupied by Russian troops and fly Russia’s tricolor flag.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered the Black Sea Fleet commander on Friday to ensure that Ukrainian troops were allowed to leave for mainland Ukraine. According to the ministry, as of March 21, fewer than 2,000 of its 18,000 troops in Crimea had expressed a wish to do so.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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