By Julian Pecquet and Justin Sink - 03/04/14 12:41 PM EST
President Obama on Tuesday said there was still time for Russia to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine as Secretary of State John Kerry warned the Kremlin during a trip to Kiev that it risked international isolation if it did not immediately end its invasion.
In his first public remarks in days, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia reserves the right to use force in Ukraine to protect ethnic Russians.
But in a possible sign he wants to lower the temperature of the fight, Putin said he saw no reason to do so at this time, according to media reports.
Obama, in calling on Russia to stand down, acknowledged what he described as “reports that President Putin is pausing for a moment and reflecting on what's happened.”
“There is the ability for Ukraine to be a friend of the West's and a friend of Russia's, as long as none of us are inside of Ukraine trying to meddle and intervene, certainly not militarily, with decisions that properly belong to the Ukrainian people,” Obama said.
Russian forces over the weekend entered the Crimean peninsula, a region in southeastern Ukraine with a strong ties to Moscow that was considered a part of Russia as recently as 1954.
Russia has claimed its troops entered the country to help ethnic Russians, but those claims drew scoffs Tuesday from the Obama administration.
Obama said there had been “no evidence of serious violence.”
He said Russia's intervention was “not based on actual concern for Russian nationals or Russian speakers inside of Ukraine, but is based on Russia seeking, through force, to exert influence on a neighboring country.”
Kerry also challenged Putin's contention that Russian troops were on a humanitarian mission to protect Russians in Ukraine from pro-Western “fascists.”
“Here in the streets today, I didn't see anybody who feels threatened — except for the potential of an invasion by Russia,” Kerry said. “I think it is clear Russia is working hard to create the pretext for being able to invade further.”
The administration is preparing sanctions against Russia, as are lawmakers in Congress.
"We ought to consider sanctions and move on those relatively quickly if, in fact, … Russia does not change its mind," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said during a press briefing in the Capitol.
"Certainly, within the next 30 days, if it's not resolved then the international community needs to take action, including the United States," he added. "There need to be adverse consequences to the Russians, and economic [steps] are what we're talking about. We're not talking about military action."
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said this week that he's ready to work with the administration on that aid package, and Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has scheduled a hearing for Thursday on the issue.
Hoyer said he spoke with Cantor on Monday, "generally but not specifically," about the Ukraine situation and Congress's response.
"I will be supportive of additional economic assistance to Ukraine, perhaps in terms of both loans and grants," Hoyer said. "Clearly, we want to see Ukraine economically able to withstand, in effect, the Russian effort to economically effect and compromise their security and their sovereignty and their independence."
Kerry promised leaders in Kiev that they would receive an assistance package from the U.S. that would include $1 billion in loan guarantees.
Speaking from the Ukrainian capital, he said Russia must “de-escalate rather than expand their invasion” and return its troops back to their barracks.
“I come here today at the instruction of President Obama to make it absolutely clear the United States of America would prefer to see this de-escalate,” Kerry said after meeting with Ukraine's new interim government. “But if Russia does not choose to de-escalate, if it is not willing to work directly with the government of Ukraine as we hope they will be, then our partners will have absolutely no choice but to join us and continue to expand upon steps we have taken in recent days in order to isolate Russia politically, diplomatically and economically.”
Putin had some harsh words for Washington in his first remarks on the conflict. He again complained of interference from Washington, complaining at one point that the U.S. government had interfered in Ukraine as if "they were sitting in a laboratory running experiments on rats."
Obama, for his part, pushed back against the “suggestion somehow that the Russian actions have been clever strategically.”
“I actually think that this has not been a sign of strength but rather is a reflection that countries near Russia have deep concerns and suspicions about this kind of meddling, and if anything, it will push many countries further away from Russia," Obama said.
The president said he had met Tuesday morning with his national security council and would continue to consult with European heads of state in the coming days. He added that he had not spoken to Putin since last weekend.
Kerry spoke after visiting the site of the deadly protests against ousted President Viktor Yanukovych and promised the new interim government $1 billion in loan guarantees.
He said the U.S. is “not seeking confrontation.”
“There is a better way for Russia to pursue its legitimate interests in Ukraine,” Kerry said.
This story was updated at 1:40 p.m.
Mike Lillis contributed to this story.