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WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States on Wednesday warned Russia against a military intervention in Ukraine as it renewed demands that Moscow withdraw troops from disputed enclaves in another former Soviet republic, Georgia. The U.S. also urged Georgia to further integrate with Europe and NATO in calls that come amid growing tensions between Russia and the West over the ouster of Ukraine's pro-Moscow president.
In pointed comments likely to fuel already heightened Russian suspicions over Western intentions in its backyard, Secretary of State John Kerry said Russia should be "very careful" in how it proceeds in Ukraine. In addition, 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.
Kerry, speaking at a meeting of the U.S.-Georgia Strategic Partnership Commission at the State Department, insisted that U.S. policy toward Ukraine, Georgia and the other states that once made up the Soviet Union is 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 is driven by America's desire to see them succeed as robust democracies with strong economies.
"We don't make that urging ... as some sort of zero-sum game between the East and West or between us and any other party," Kerry said. "We simply want people to be able to exercise their freedom of choice and be able to maximize their economic opportunities. That doesn't mean that it can't also mean engagement with others."
Later, in an interview with MSNBC television, Kerry echoed those remarks but went further in addressing the situation in Ukraine.
"I think Russia needs to be very careful in the judgments that it makes going forward here," Kerry said. "We are not looking for confrontation, but we are making it clear that every country should respect the territorial integrity, the sovereignty of Ukraine. Russia has said it will do that, and we think it's important that Russia keeps its word."
"What we need now to do is not get into an old, Cold War confrontation," he said. "We need to work together in what does not have to be a zero-sum game to provide the capacity of the people of Ukraine to choose their future."
Kerry spoke as Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered massive military exercises in western Russia, including along its border with Ukraine. Russian news agencies reported that the Defense Ministry 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 was 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.
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 adamantly denied such allegations.
Kerry said the Ukrainian people had risen up themselves against a "kleptocracy" and added that he suspected that some elements in Russia had advised Yanukovych to crack down hard on his opponents.
"I think to some degree Russia has not been in touch with some of what has been happening on the ground," he said. "I think there were some encouragements by some people for Yanukovych to take a very harsh position."