U.S.-Russia in Direct Talks on Ukraine; EU Pledges $15 Billion in Aid

The United States and Russia are holding face-to-face talks today for the first time since the crisis in Ukraine escalated last month. Secretary of State John Kerry is to meet with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of a summit in Paris. On Tuesday, Kerry visited the Ukrainian capital of Kiev to show support for the government that replaced ousted Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych. Kerry pledged around $1 billion in U.S. aid and warned Russia of sanctions if it does not withdraw from Crimea.

Secretary of State John Kerry: "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 to continue to expand upon steps we have taken in recent days in order to isolate Russia politically, diplomatically and economically."

In addition to the one billion dollars from the United States, the European Union is set to offer a $15 billion aid package today.

Putin Denies Russian Troops in Crimea, Calls Force a "Last Resort"

On Tuesday, unarmed Ukrainian forces held a standoff with Russian counterparts after marching on a Russian position in Crimea, demanding their withdrawal. The Ukrainians ultimately pulled back after several hours. In his first news conference since deploying troops around Crimea last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed he would use force only as a "last resort."

Russian President Vladimir Putin: "What can be a reason to use the armed forces? This is of course the last resort, simply the last resort. If we see that lawlessness starting in eastern regions too, if people ask us for help — and we have already an official address from the current legitimate president — we reserve the right to use all options at our disposal to protect those citizens."

Both Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have denied Russian soldiers are occupying Crimea, saying the masked troops are "local" forces. On Tuesday, President Obama criticized Putin’s claims.

President Obama: "I know President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations, but I don’t think that’s fooling anybody. I think everybody recognizes that although Russia has legitimate interests in what happens in a neighboring state, that does not give it the right to use force as a means of exerting influence inside of that state."

Obama Unveils $3.9 Trillion Budget

The White House has unveiled its proposed budget for the next fiscal year. The $3.9 trillion measure includes a reduction of tax breaks for wealthy Americans and corporations, which Republicans have vowed to oppose. It also targets low-income workers under the age of 25 for additional benefits, including an expansion of earned income tax credits. Speaking at a Washington, D.C. elementary school, President Obama said his budget reflects a commitment to tackling inequality.

President Obama: "At a time when our deficits are falling at the fastest rate in 60 years, we’ve got to decide if we’re going to keep squeezing the middle class or if we’re going to continue to reduce the deficits responsibly while taking steps to grow and strengthen the middle class. The American people have made clear time and again which approach they prefer. That’s the approach that my budget offers. That’s why I’m gong to fight for it this year and in the years to come as president."

Pentagon Budget Request at $575 Billion, Over $79 Billion for War

The proposed military budget for 2015 is $575 billion. The Pentagon is seeking an additional $79.4 billion in war funding, even though most U.S. troops are supposed to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

U.S. Judge Bars Enforcement of Ecuadorean Ruling on Chevron Pollution

The oil giant Chevron has won a major victory in a lawsuit it brought against victims of its pollution in Ecuador. A group of indigenous plaintiffs won a landmark $9 billion judgment in 2011 for widespread contamination resulting from toxic dumping by Texaco, which Chevron later bought. But Chevron sued the victims and their U.S. attorney, accusing them of bribing the judge in the case and presenting fraudulent evidence. On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan agreed, ruling the plaintiffs used "corrupt means." He also barred collection of their $9 billion judgment in the United States. In a statement, Chevron hailed what it called a "resounding victory" that will make the Ecuadorean judgment "illegitimate and unenforceable." The plaintiffs say they plan to appeal and still pursue the $9 billion judgment in other countries. In a statement, the group Amazon Watch called the verdict "an example of Chevron buying and bullying its way to a verdict with 60 law firms and thousands of legal professionals hell-bent on exhausting the Ecuadorians and their allies. Such a verdict will ultimately prove useless in Chevron’s efforts to evade justice."

Appeals Court Orders BP to Resume Gulf Spill Payments

An appeals court has rejected the oil giant BP’s attempt to limit payouts stemming from its 2010 oil spill in the Gulf. BP had accused local businesses of claiming "fictitious losses" in seeking compensation for damages from the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. The ruling lifts an injunction that had frozen the payments pending a court decision on BP’s suit.

D.C. Council Votes to Decriminalize Marijuana Possession

The Washington, D.C. City Council has given final approval of a measure to decriminalize marijuana. The move would scrap criminal penalties for pot possession in favor of a violation equivalent to a parking ticket. City councilmember and bill sponsor Tommy Wells said the new law will address racial disparities in drug arrests.

Tommy Wells: "In D.C., over 90 percent of those arrested for marijuana are African-American. We know, with six universities, the black kids are not the only ones smoking pot. And so, first of all, it gets at a social justice issue. And then, once you do have a drug charge, you’re not going to get a job on a construction site. You’re going to have trouble with a commercial driver’s license. A lot of the jobs that are low-barrier entry jobs, you’re disqualified if you have a drug charge."

Democratic Mayor Vincent Gray has pledged to sign the measure into law. The District of Columbia would join 17 states that have also decriminalized marijuana possession.

CIA Officials Accused of Spying on Senate Panel

The CIA has launched an investigation of its own employees over a dispute with a Senate panel probing the agency’s torture and rendition program. Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee say CIA officials illegally monitored their staffers’ work as they compiled the panel’s exhaustive probe on CIA torture. The report has yet to be declassified but reportedly documents extensive abuses and a cover-up by CIA officials to Congress. Details are under wraps, but the new probe reportedly began after the CIA took what Democratic Senator Mark Udall called an "unprecedented action" against his committee.

Izzy Awards Honor Journalism on Mexico, U.S. Wars, Surveillance

The journalists John Carlos Frey and Nick Turse have been named winners of the sixth annual Izzy Award for outstanding achievement in independent media. The Izzy Award is named after legendary maverick journalist I.F. Stone, who launched I.F. Stone’s Weekly in 1953 and exposed government deception, McCarthyism and racial bigotry. The Park Center for Independent Media says it chose John Carlos Frey for "tirelessly probing the increasingly militarized U.S./Mexico border and rise in fatal shootings by U.S. Border Patrol agents … sparking congressional inquiry, criminal probes, federal investigations and changes in the Border Patrol’s training and use-of-force protocols." Nick Turse, the author of the book "Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam," was honored for "[giving] human form and voice to civilian victims of U.S. wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan." Two past honorees, journalists Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, were also named the first members of the new I.F. Stone Hall of Fame meant to recognize "the new generation of Izzy Stones." The awards will be presented at a ceremony next month.

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