Despite what Russia's President Vladimir Putin might say, the country's approach to Ukraine is a "gross violation of international law," says Ukraine's ambassador to the U.S., Olexander Motsyk.
"The whole world witnessed the act of aggression of Russia against Ukraine," Motsyk tells NPR's Melissa Block, in an All Things Considered interview about recent developments in his country.
As we reported earlier, Putin claimed today that the armed forces that have taken over parts of Crimea are not Russian. They're "local self-defense forces," he said.
That's simply not true, Motsyk says, repeating himself for emphasis.
"The fact is," he says, "these are Russian forces. And they participate in toppling local government in Crimea."
The ambassador says he welcomed hearing Putin say that Russia is pulling its troops back from Ukraine's border — but he couldn't verify that a withdrawal is underway.
"We're happy that there is such a statement" from Putin, Motsyk says. "But we need not only words, but deeds."
A tense situation passed without violence earlier today, when armed men who had taken control of the Belbek airbase in Crimea fired warning shots as more than 100 Ukrainian troops approached them. The Ukrainians were unarmed, carrying a flag and singing. The situation ended without reported injuries.
Ukraine isn't sure where exactly the troops came from, Motsyk says. But he cites a colleague's report Monday that there are 16,000 Russian troops in the Ukraine now.
"Russia simply violated international law and occupied Crimea," Motsyk says. "The choice of Ukraine was to integrate into European Union — and maybe not everybody is happy with that idea."
"There are Ukrainian vessels that have now been effectively turned into Russian vessels, have been forced to change their allegiance," Melissa says of Ukraine's military. "What about those vessels? What happens to them?"
"As far as I know, all vessels are loyal to Ukraine," Motsyk says. "Yes, Russia has been trying to establish control over Ukrainian military facilities. But all the Ukrainian troops are loyal to Kiev."
A career diplomat, Motsyk has been Ukraine's ambassador to the U.S. since 2010, a span that includes serving the ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.
Motsyk has negotiated with Russia on border and citizenship issues in the past. He says that Ukraine will work with the U.S., Europe and Russia to ensure the country maintains control of Crimea.
"We live in 21st century. So, everybody has to behave like in 21st century, not in 19th century," he says. "That's the main thing. And if you violate international law, you have to have responsibility for that."
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
I'm joined now by Ukraine's ambassador to the United States, Olexander Motsyk. Welcome to the program.
AMBASSADOR OLEXANDER MOTSYK: Thank you very much. Thank you.
BLOCK: We heard President Putin say in that news conference today that Russia is pulling its troops back from Ukraine's border. First of all, can you verify that that's, in fact, happened and if so, do you take that as a positive sign?
MOTSYK: Well, we have heard about that and we are happy that there is such a statement, but we need not only words but deeds. And for the time being, I cannot verify, but it will be very good if Russia will withdraw its troops from border of Ukraine.
BLOCK: Putin also did say that he's reserving the right to deploy forces into Ukraine from the east in what he calls extreme circumstances to protect Russian speakers. What's your view of President Putin's intentions towards your country?
MOTSYK: Well, first of all, I would like to say that the whole world witnessed the act of aggression of Russia against Ukraine and the gross violation of international law. We are neighbors with Russia. We are strategic partners. We share history for many centuries and it's not the way to treat your neighbor, to treat your strategic partner. If there are some issues that need to be solved, it's very easy to, let's say, to talk to Ukrainian government and to sit at the table and solve the issue. But not to send troops to Crimea, to occupy Crimea instead of using diplomacy, use force.
BLOCK: We did also hear President Putin today claim that the military personnel who are now controlling Crimea, he says they are not Russian forces. He called them local defense forces. What's your take on that?
MOTSYK: It's not simple true. I will repeat it again. It's not simple true. The fact is that these are Russian forces and they participated in toppling local government in Crimea.
BLOCK: Where did they come from, these forces?
MOTSYK: We don't know.
BLOCK: And do you have an estimate for how many Russian troops you believe to be currently on Ukrainian soil in Crimea?
MOTSYK: Well, I would say yesterday my colleague spoke in Security Council, Yuriy Sergeyev, and he mentioned figures up to like 15,000 troops.
BLOCK: And you would agree with that?
MOTSYK: Yeah, yeah. That's true.
BLOCK: Ambassador Motsyk, I see in your bio that you have spent a lot of time negotiating with Russia on these very questions, the Black Sea fleet, the limits of those state borders, citizenship issues. These are clearly thorny issues and have been for quite some time and you've seen that from the inside.
MOTSYK: Yeah. That's really I had participated and headed Ukrainian delegation in many negotiations with Russia and I can say that that was not easy, but at that time, we managed to find the solution to all those issues.
BLOCK: So what happened?
MOTSYK: Well, Russia simply violated international law and occupied Crimea and while the situation of Ukraine was to integrate into the European Union and maybe not everybody is happy with that idea.
BLOCK: Mm-hmm. It doesn't seem that the international community has come to agreement on sanctions toward Russia, whether or not Russia should be kicked out of the G8. Do you think the Western response has been strong enough? Or do you want it to be more forceful?
MOTSYK: Well, we really are very thankful to the whole world and, first of all to the international community and, first of all, to the United States and to European Union for a very strong support of Ukraine. I know that the international community has been working further on this issue, including on package of assistance to Ukraine.
BLOCK: Olexander Motsyk is Ukraine's ambassador to the United States.
Ambassador Motsyk, thanks for being with us.
MOTSYK: Thank you very much. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.