The Hague, AP—US President Barack Obama met on Tuesday with Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as he continued his efforts to isolate Moscow over its incursion into Crimea.
In a last-minute addition to his schedule, Obama sat down with Nazarbayev in a long room at the US Embassy in The Hague, with the two countries’ flags set up behind them.
As the leaders wrapped up their meeting, the White House released a joint statement from Obama and Nazarbayev that did not address the Ukraine situation, but focused instead on bilateral cooperation on nuclear security and nonproliferation—the theme of a concurrent summit serving as the official purpose for Obama’s visit to the Netherlands.
Kazakhstan is the second largest country by territory and economy to emerge from the former Soviet Union, but Kazakhstan’s energy resources and strong economy give it some independence from Moscow. Nazarbayev has maneuvered between Russia and the West during more than two decades in power.
Both Obama and Putin have already been in touch with Nazarbayev this month in the wake of the Crimean upheaval. Obama spoke by phone with the Kazakhstan leader on March 10. The White House said then that Obama urged Nazarbayev to play an active role in seeking a peaceful resolution over the disputed peninsula. Putin spoke to Nazarbayev on March 16, the day of the secession referendum in Crimea. The Kremlin at the time said both presidents said they were satisfied that the people of Crimea had the opportunity to express their will.
The United States was redoubling efforts to pressure Russia out of its aggressive pose as Obama’s four-country, weeklong trip entered its second day. But to the east, the Russian annexation of Crimea was beginning to take root and Moscow shrugged off Obama’s drive to leave Putin in the cold.
The US and some of its closest allies cut Russia out indefinitely from a major coalition of leading industrial nations and canceled a summer summit Russia was to host in its Olympic village of Sochi. Obama also sought to win backing from other foreign leaders in the hope of ostracizing or even shaming Putin into reversing his acquisition of Crimea and backing away from any designs he might have on other Eastern Europe territory.
In a strongly worded joint statement, the US, France, Canada, Britain, Germany, Italy and Japan denounced a referendum in Crimea to secede from Ukraine and Russia’s ensuing annexation. In so doing, the seven leaders also effectively excluded Russia from the G8.
“This clear violation of international law is a serious challenge to the rule of law around the world and should be a concern for all nations,” the declaration said.
Still, Monday’s international gestures in Amsterdam and in The Hague received only a dismissive reaction from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
“The G8 is an informal club,” he said. “It has no membership tickets, and it can’t purge anyone by definition.”
And in the Crimean Peninsula, Ukraine ordered its troops to pull back from the disputed territory, a clear signal that, at least for now, the fledgling Ukrainian government in Kiev was ceding to Russia’s aggressive tactics.
The showdown between Russia and the West has evoked old Cold-War tensions and is sure to dominate questions for Obama on Tuesday when he holds a joint news conference with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. It will be Obama’s first news conference since Russia made a move on Crimea.
The opportunity for Obama to seek international support came as leaders from around the world had already converged in the Netherlands for a nuclear security summit.
But Ukraine has so far dominated Obama’s side discussions with world leaders and the G7 members. Even Russia’s Lavrov, in The Hague for the nuclear summit, met on the sidelines with US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Speaking earlier Monday, with Rutte at his side, Obama called Russia’s annexation of the peninsula on the Black Sea a “flagrant breach of international law,” and added: “We condemn its actions in the strongest possible terms.”
Obama also raised the issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
White House aides later commended the Chinese for refusing to side with Russia, a longtime ally, on a UN Security Council vote last week declaring the secession vote illegal. Russia, a Security Council permanent member, voted against it, while China abstained.
On Tuesday, Obama planned additional meetings on the security summit sidelines: a sit-down with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, the richest emirate in the United Arab Emirates federation, and a joint meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
Both those meetings are likely to focus less on Ukraine and more on regional tensions in the Middle East and in Northern Asia. The visit with the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince will also serve as a precursor to Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia on Friday, where he will meet with King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz to address Arab anxieties over the Syrian crisis and US nuclear talks with Iran, a Saudi Arabia rival in the region.
The meeting with Park and Abe brings together two US Asian allies who have been quarreling over recent Abe gestures that have rekindled memories of Japan’s aggression in the Second World War. It will be the first meeting between the two Asian leaders since they took office more than a year ago.
Despite Monday’s Russian bluster and the Ukrainian troop withdrawal, US and other Western officials took note of hopeful signs, including Lavrov’s own meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart, the highest-level encounter between the two nations since Russia moved forces into Crimea nearly a month ago.