Sunday, March 9, 2014

Pro-Russian units planted minefields in the Kherson region, north of Crimea on Ukraine’s mainland, and began to install border markers between the two regions, news website Khersonskie Vesti reported today. Ukraine’s border control service said Russian forces now control 13 border bases as well as the ferry across the Kerch Strait to Russia, preventing guards from inspecting trucks arriving in Crimea.

Crimea Takeover Builds to Expose Ukraine Escalation Risk

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Pro-Russian forces advanced in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, ignoring Western calls to abandon a military takeover before the region’s separatist referendum.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said today he’d travel to Washington as Russian President Vladimir Putin defended the actions of Crimea’s local government, which may use the March 16 vote to leave Ukraine and join the country’s Soviet-era master. Russian troops also detained Ukrainian border guards at a base a day after gunmen fired warning shots at international observers and barred them from Crimea.
Russia is wresting control of Crimea, home to its Black Sea Fleet, from Ukraine following last month’s ouster of the former Soviet republic’s Moscow-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych. The U.S. estimates Russia now has 20,000 troops confronting a smaller Ukrainian force there. Ukraine has stepped up its eastern border defenses in the worst standoff between it and the West since the Cold War.
“There clearly are Russian troops in Crimea,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said today on BBC TV. “The long-term effect will be to unite Ukraine more against Russian domination of their affairs and to recast European policies in a way that will reduce Russian leverage over Europe.”

Russian Minefields

Putin spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron by phone today. He said Russia wanted a diplomatic solution and he’d discuss a proposal to establish a contact group with EU leaders and the U.S. to resolve the situation with his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, tomorrow, a spokesman from Cameron’s office said today.
At the same time, during the call with Merkel, Putin “underlined that the actions of the legitimate Crimean government are based on international law and are aimed at assuring the lawful interests of the population on the peninsula,” the Kremlin said in an e-mailed statement.
At Putin’s request, lawmakers in Moscow have pledged to accept the results of the referendum on Crimea joining Russia. Putin says he’s defending Ukraine’s ethnic Russians, who make up 59 percent of Crimea’s population. Ukraine’s government in Kiev says they aren’t under threat.
Pro-Russian units planted minefields in the Kherson region, north of Crimea on Ukraine’s mainland, and began to install border markers between the two regions, news website Khersonskie Vesti reported today. Ukraine’s border control service said Russian forces now control 13 border bases as well as the ferry across the Kerch Strait to Russia, preventing guards from inspecting trucks arriving in Crimea.

Standoff Continues

Authorities on the peninsula ordered an anti-aircraft regiment in the city of Yevpatoriya to lay down its arms by 5 p.m. today or its base would be taken over, news service Interfax reported.
Ukrainian border troops will leave Crimea only if “forced,” the head of the service, Pavlo Shysholin, told reporters in Kiev today. The country’s military moved groups of armored vehicles from its western Zhytomyr and Lviv regions toward the east and southeast, Russian television Rossiya 24 reported, citing local citizens. Ukraine isn’t planning to move army troops to Crimea, acting Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh said at a government meeting in Kiev.
Gunmen fired warning shots at observers yesterday from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, blocking them from entering Crimea, Tatyana Baeva, a spokeswoman said by phone by Vienna. A 57-nation group that includes Russia and the U.S., the OSCE focuses on conflict prevention and preserving human rights, among other issues. Russia isn’t taking part in the Ukraine mission.

Annexing Crimea

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Lavrov, yesterday. Kerry “made clear that continued military escalation and provocation in Crimea or elsewhere in Ukraine, along with steps to annex Crimea to Russia would close any available space for diplomacy,” according to a statement from the U.S. State Department.
The peninsula, where Russian speakers comprise a majority, will join Russia once parliament in Moscow passes the necessary legislation and there’s nothing the West can do to stop the process, according to Sergei Tsekov, the deputy speaker of Crimea’s parliament.
“There’s no comeback, and the U.S. or Europe can’t impede us,” Tsekov said by phone on March 7 from Moscow, where he met Russian officials to discuss the region’s future. “Crimea won’t be part of Ukraine anymore. There are no more options.”

Referendum Looms

U.S. President Barack Obama spoke by phone this week with leaders of EU states including France, the U.K., GermanyItaly and the Baltic former Soviet republics Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, according to the White House.
All of them “rejected the proposed referendum in Crimea as a violation of Ukraine’s constitution,” and all “agreed on the need for Russia to pull its military forces back to their bases,” according to a White House statement. The U.S. and European allies will impose sanctions if there isn’t a quick resolution, Obama said at the White House on March 6.
Obama has urged Ukraine, a country of 45-million people, to control its military and avoid giving Russia a pretext to escalate with military force, said two U.S. officials who requested anonymity to discuss intelligence reports and diplomatic contacts.

Russian Pressure

Lavrov, in his conversation with Kerry, warned against “hasty and ill-considered moves that can damage Russian-American relations, especially sanctions, which would inevitably boomerang on theUnited States,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in its statement.
Russia also turned up the economic pressure on the Kiev government by signaling that natural gas supplies may be cut because Ukraine’s unpaid gas bills have reached $1.9 billion. OAO Gazprom (OGZD) halted supplies to Ukraine five years ago amid a pricing and debt dispute, curbing flows to Europe.
To steady Ukraine’s finances, the EU plans to provide an 11 billion-euro ($15.3 billion) aid package and is prepared to drop tariffs on about 85 percent of the bloc’s imports of Ukrainian goods, according to De Gucht. Ukraine wants as much as $15 billion from the International Monetary Fund.
To contact the reporters on this story: Volodymyr Verbyany in Kiev at; Daryna Krasnolutska in Kiev at; Stepan Kravchenko in Simferopol
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at Andrea Dudik
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William Hague: Russia could be shut out of the G8 over Ukraine crisis

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He said: “We’ve already suspended the preparations for the G8 summit which is due to be held in Russia in June and we’ve stopped the meetings leading up to that. Clearly one of the options, if there is no diplomatic progress, is to cancel that altogether and indeed the G7 countries are entirely free to meet on their own. These are things that would not be welcome in Russia."
However, he ruled out using military force to oust Russia from Crimea, a Ukrainian territory since the 1950s.
While regime individuals have been hit by travel bans and asset freezes Britain would not prevent wealthy Russians doing business here, he said.
"We are not going to say a Russian who is here legally conducting an entirely legal business cannot come to London"
Instead Russia will face "severe unintended consequences" for their "miscalculation" because businesses will in the long run shun the country and the EU will harden its stance against the country.
"There is a rising cost to Russia of behaving in this way."
He said next week's referendum on Crimea had been called "ridiculously quickly."
"The world will not be able to regard that as a free or fair referendum.”

Gates: Crimea is gone, lost to Russia

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In Kiev, Khodorkovsky blames Russia for Ukraine deaths

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In Kiev, Khodorkovsky blames Russia for Ukraine deaths
(AFP) – 53 minutes ago 
Kiev — A top foe of Russian President Vladimir Putin who spent a decade behind bars told thousands on Kiev's main protest square Sunday that the Kremlin colluded with Ukraine's ousted regime in violence claiming 100 lives.
"I was told what the authorities did here. They did this with the agreement of the Russian leadership," former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodrkovsky said in an emotional address from a stage set up on Kiev's iconic Independence Square.
"I wanted to cry. It is terrifying. This is not my leadership."
The 50-year-old founder of the former Yukos oil empire -- its main holdings now in possession of the state -- was released from jail in December under an amnesty Putin signed in what was widely seen as an attempt to ease foreign criticism of his rights record ahead of February's Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
Khodorkovsky was once Russia's richest man and an ambitious politician with presidential ambitions who openly opposed Putin when the former KGB spy first entered the Kremlin in 2000.
His 2003 arrest and subsequent convictions on fraud and embezzlement charges have been widely condemned by Kremlin critics as an effort by Putin to silence his most potent foe.
Khodorkovsky left Russia immediately after his release and has vowed not to return until the authorities drop old lawsuits against him worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
He had spent most of his time since his release in Western Europe and has vowed to stay out of Russian politics.
But Khodorkovsky arrived in Kiev late Saturday for a tour of central parts of the city where 100 people died during three months of protests that eventually toppled president Viktor Yanukovych's pro-Kremlin regime.
Khodorkovsky's voice shook and his lips at one stage quivered as he told the receptive crowd he was deeply shocked by the violence that has gripped the ex-Soviet state.
"I want you to know -- there is a different Russia. There are people who despite the arrests, despite the long years they have spent in prison, go to anti-war demonstrations in Moscow," Khodorkovsky said in reference to the dozens arrested last week near the Kremlin during a protest against Russia's de facto seisure of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.
"There are people for whom the friendship between the Russian and Ukrainian people is stronger than their own freedom," he said. "I believe that Russia and Ukraine have a united, common European future."
Khodorkovsky is due to give a public lecture at a Kiev university on Monday but has not formally scheduled any meetings with the new pro-EU interim leadership that replaced Yanukovych last month.
Copyright © 2014 AFP. All rights reserved. More »
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White House pushes back on GOP assault on Obama on Crimea

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President Obama waves as he arrives at the White House on March 5 from a trip to Connecticut.(Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP)
A top White House official on Sunday dismissed criticism that President Obama's past foreign policy record influenced Russia's military action in Crimea.
Tony Blinken, a White House deputy national security adviser, said that the Republican argument that Obama has shown weakness on foreign policy —particularly in how he's dealt with the 3-year-old Syrian war — and thus emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin to deploy troops into the semi-autonomous Crimean region of Russia was hollow.
"The notion that this is somehow a result of Syria makes very little sense to me," Blinken said on CNN's State of the Union. "This is about Ukraine."
Last year, after previously calling the use of chemical weapons by Syria's Bashar Assad regime a "red line" that must not be crossed, Obama declined to take military action against the regime after it was determined Assad had deployed chemical weapons against the opposition.
The stout defense by a top foreign policy official at the White House comes after Republicans have pilloried Obama in recent days over the Crimea crisis.
On Sunday, former Vice President Dick Cheney argued that Obama could take more robust response, including conducting a joint military exercise with Poland and revisiting a U.S. proposal to build a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
The project, intended to protect Europe from missile threat from Iran, is opposed by Moscow and was put on the back burner by Obama after he came into office and tried to reset frosty U.S-Russian relations.
"I worry when we begin to address the crisis, the first thing we do is take options off the table," Cheney told CBS's Face the Nation. "In the sense of saying 'no military.' [Obama] seems to operate that way most of the time. There are military options that don't involve putting groups on the ground in Crimea."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., last week said that the crisis in Crimea was "the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America's strength anymore."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, are among Republicans who have also taken shots at Obama's foreign policy acumen as the Crimea crisis has unfolded.
Russia "is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles," Rogers said.
Blinken noted that Russia also deployed troops into Georgia in 2008 during the George W. Bush administration.
"That's because this is not about what we do or we say in the first instance, it's about Russia and its perceived interests," Blinken said.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served in both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, also pushed back against the Republican criticism.
"Even if we had launched attacks in Syria, even if we weren't cutting our defense budget, I think Putin saw an opportunity here in Crimea, and he has seized it," Gates said on Fox News Sunday.
"Some of the criticism, domestic criticism of the president, ought to be toned down while he's handling this crisis," Gates said. "My own view is, after all, [Vladimir] Putin invaded Georgia when George W. Bush was president. Nobody ever accused George W. Bush of being weak or being unwilling to use military force."
Obama has invited Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to the White House on Wednesday for talks about the ongoing crisis.
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Republicans Heighten Criticism of Obama's Ukraine Response

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Former Vice President Dick Cheney accused President Barack Obama Sunday of appeasing Russian President Vladimir Putin and said there’s “no question” that Putin “believes he is weak.”
Cheney said in an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation that Obama and his advisers “have created an image around the world, not just to the Russians, of weakness… the Syrian situation is a classic. We got all ready to do something -- a lot of the allies signed on -- and at the last minute, Obama backed off.”
Cheney said that in responding to Russia’s seizure of Crimea, “there are military options that don’t involve putting troops on the ground in Crimea. We could go back and reinstate the ballistic-missile defense program that was taken out, that was originally going to go in Poland (and) the Czech Republic and Obama took it out to appease Putin.”
He also suggested that Obama offer military equipment and training to the Ukrainians and do joint training exercises in Poland.
Cheney did admit that Bush administration’s responses to the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia “were not effective in terms of driving Putin out.” Some observers see Putin’s successful invasion of Georgia as the template for Russian actions in Crimea.
Cheney’s comments came as Robert Gates, who served as defense secretary under both President George W. Bush and under Obama, said on Fox News Sunday that Putin’s seizure of Crime appeared to be irreversible. “I do not believe that Crimea will slip out of Russia's hand," he said.
More Republican criticism of Obama’s handling of the Ukraine crisis came from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a potential Republican presidential contender. In an interview on ABC’s This Week, Cruz said Obama’s foreign policy was “to alienate and abandon our friends and to coddle and appease our enemies. You better believe that Putin sees in Benghazi four Americans are murdered and noting happens, there’s no retribution. You better believe that Putin sees in Syria (that) Obama draws a red line and ignores a red line.”
Also commenting on the Ukraine crisis, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., another potential 2016 GOP presidential contender, said on Fox News Sunday that if Putin “creates a Syria out of Ukraine, what's going to happen is 80 percent of his oil and gas is going through Ukraine. It will be a disaster for him.”
Paul said he would “immediately get every obstacle out of the way for our export of oil and gas, and I would begin drilling in every possible conceivable place within our territories in order to have production that we could supply Europe with if it's interrupted from Ukraine.”
Defending a comment in which he’d said the United States ought to have “a respectful sometimes adversarial but a respectful relationship with Russia," Paul said Obama “hasn't projected enough strength and hasn't shown a priority to the national defense. That is something that were I in charge I would.”
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