WASHINGTON, March 24 (Reuters) - The United States on Monday voiced disagreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's decision to back Russia's annexation of Crimea, a move made all the more striking by Washington's role as a chief opponent to recent Russian moves in Ukraine.
Karzai, increasingly at odds with Western nations who have backed his leadership of Afghanistan for over a dozen years, over the weekend came out in support of the results of a recent referendum that led to Russia's annexation of the Crimean region, according to a government statement cited by media.
At the Pentagon, Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters that the comments by the Afghan leader, preparing to step down after elections next month, were "clearly not helpful."
"While he's certainly entitled to his opinion, it's our opinion here in the United States - and I believe I can speak for us as a NATO partner, that it's the opinion of the alliance - that Russia is absolutely in violation of international obligations, violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine," Kirby said.
The Obama administration and other major industrialized nations on Monday warned Russia that it could face damaging economic sanctions if President Vladimir Putin takes further actions to destabilize Ukraine following the seizure of Crimea.
Moscow formally annexed Crimea on March 21, five days after newly installed pro-Moscow regional leaders held a referendum that yielded an overwhelming vote to join Russia. Kiev and the West have denounced the annexation as illegal.
Only a handful of other countries, such as Venezuela and Syria, have come out in support of the move.
Afghanistan was occupied by Russian soldiers during the 1980s in support of the Moscow-allied government of the day.
Karzai has clashed with increasing openness with the United States and other Western powers in recent years, as he has sought to assert his government's independence and grappled with internal pressure over civilian casualties and corruption associated with the billions of dollars donor countries have spent on aid projects since 2001.
Even as NATO nations withdraw their forces, and over a dozen years after the toppling of the Taliban government launched Karzai to power, Afghanistan is expected to remain heavily reliant on foreign assistance.
While the United States has sought to keep a small force in Afghanistan after the end of this year, it remains unclear whether the Afghan government will sign a bilateral agreement authorizing a post-2014 force. (Reporting By Missy Ryan; editing by Andrew Hay)