Obama demands West stand firm against 'brute force'

BRUSSELS (AFP) - US President Barack Obama urged the West on Wednesday to stand firm in opposing Moscow's takeover of Crimea, saying that "with time" Russians will realise "brute force" cannot win.

Winding up a daylong visit that kicked off with a moving tour through the only Belgian World War I cemetery to hold US graves, Mr Obama said "we must never forget that we are heirs to a struggle for freedom." He told a crowd of some 2,000 people massed in a concert hall alongside Belgian's king and queen that Russia's actions had challenged "truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident".

The Kremlin's incursion into Crimea had violated the beliefs that international law matters, that borders cannot be redrawn, that people must decide their own future, Mr Obama said before departing Brussels for Rome where he will meet Pope Francis.

In his only speech in a six-day tour of Europe, the US president said though the West was not directly affected by Russia's actions, "indifference would ignore the lessons that are written in the cemeteries of this continent".

Both Mr Obama and NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen called for a strengthening of the military alliance on the eastern fringe of Europe, where nations once under Soviet influence fear Moscow's intervention.

But both also spoke out in favour of a diplomatic solution.

"This is not another Cold War we're entering into," Mr Obama said of the Ukraine crisis. "The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia." But members of the transatlantic military alliance would uphold their "one-for-all" duty to defend each other's sovereignty.

"In that promise we will never waiver," Obama said. "NATO nations never stand alone."

Nervous over its assertive stance in Ukraine, at talks with Russia on Wednesday Georgia sought a fresh pledge that Moscow would not use force to resolve their simmering territorial conflict.

"Georgia remains committed to its non-use of force pledge unilaterally taken in 2010," said chief negotiator David Zalkaliani after the latest round of internationally-brokered peace talks in Geneva.

In Washington, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said Russia has moved more troops closer to Ukraine's borders in recent days despite assurances it will not invade.

Defence analysts Jane's said Ukraine's maritime forces have been severely diminished by the Russian intervention in Crimea after they lost 12 of their 17 warships to Moscow.

Around 12,000 of the Ukrainian navy's 15,450 personnel were based in Crimea when Russia first intervened on February 27, and since then have lost the bulk of their assets, Jane's said in a commentary.

In Kiev, interim president Oleksandr Turchynov raised the stakes by asking parliamentary approval for a set of military exercises with NATO partners that would put US troops in direct proximity with Russia's forces in the annexed peninsula.

Earlier in Brussels, the US president wrapped up a lightning 90-minute summit held across a luncheon table with the EU's top officials urging Europe and America to "stand as one." Viewed as the most important trip to Europe by a US president in years because of the Ukraine crisis, it was Mr Obama's first summit in Brussels with the bloc's leading officials, EU Council and European Commission presidents Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso.

Crimea's "illegal" annexation was "a disgrace in the 21st century", said Mr Van Rompuy. "We will not recognise it."

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