Thursday, April 17, 2014

Base Attack, Referendum Plans Overshadow Russia, Ukraine Talks

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian, Russian and Western diplomats held emergency talks in Switzerland on Thursday, in the hope of resolving a deepening crisis that has seen armed pro-Russian protesters seize swaths of Ukraine.

Will Ukraine talks yield results?

The unrest in the restive east, which shares a border with Russia, is spiraling so fast, it has left diplomacy writhing in the dust.

In the southeastern city of Mariupol, a gang of 300 attacked a Ukrainian military base Thursday, leading to gunfire between the two sides.

In Donetsk, the self-declared chairman of the people's council said he wants a referendum by May 11 to ask residents if they wanted sovereignty.

And in Slaviansk, pro-Russian militants are firmly in control.

Amid it all, the U.S. is talking fresh sanctions, which will certainly not make the mood in Russia more conciliatory.

Such are the challenges the European Union and the United States confronted when bringing together the Kremlin and Kiev on Thursday to find a way out of the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War.

Kiev's embattled new leaders are struggling to reassert their authority in eastern towns largely controlled by armed pro-Russian separatists.

They have tried dialogue and a show of force, both to little effect.

The Geneva gathering will be the first meeting since the crisis worsened.

Speaking in a televised question-and-answer session, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the talks were important "to figure out how to get out of this situation."

However, he also reiterated his thoughts about Kiev's new interim government -- in place since pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February after months of protests -- calling it "illegitimate" and without a national mandate.

Presidential elections in May are taking place under "unacceptable conditions," he added.

"If the elections are to be legitimate, the constitution of Ukraine needs to be revised," he said.

Attack on military base 

Earlier Thursday, in bloodshed likely to overshadow the meeting, about 300 pro-Russian militants repeatedly attacked a military base in Mariupol, Kiev said.

Soldiers opened fire, killing three attackers, wounding 13 and detaining 63 others.

But some soldiers surrendered.

"The 25th Airborne Brigade whose soldiers showed cowardice and laid down weapons will be disbanded," acting President Oleksandr Turchynov told parliament.

"Guilty soldiers will stand before the court."

Seeking another referendum In an ominous echo to what happened in Crimea just weeks ago, the Donetsk People's Republic wants to follow that region's lead and hold a referendum early next month, said Denis Pushilin, the self-declared chairman of the people's council.

The referendum will essentially ask residents which country they want to be a part of: Russia or Ukraine.

Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula last month after its predominantly Russian-speaking residents voted yes in a referendum.

The moved was deemed illegal by Kiev and the West, but Putin has repeatedly defended it.

"The threats to Russian-speaking people were absolutely clear, and that is why people of Crimea voted for their future and asked Russia for help," he said.

"Russia never planned any annexation, never, quite the contrary."

Putin also said Russian forces had been active in Crimea in order to support local defense forces, the first time he has acknowledged the deployment of Russian troops on the Black Sea peninsula.

Threats of sanctions Kiev and the West don't believe Putin.

They accuse Moscow of stirring up the unrest, pointing to the 40,000 Russian troops that NATO says are assembled near the Ukrainian frontier.

Moscow insists the troops are merely conducting exercises.

There are no Russian divisions in eastern Ukraine, Putin reiterated Thursday, adding that all evidence pointed to the groups causing the unrest being local residents.

He said the presence of tanks and planes constituted "a very serious crime" that authorities in Kiev were committing.

Moscow has warned in the past week that Ukraine was "on the brink of a civil war."

On Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama said Russia's actions risk more sanctions for the country.

"What I've said consistently is that each time Russia takes these kinds of steps that are designed to destabilize Ukraine and violate their sovereignty, that there are going to be consequences. And what you've already seen is the Russian economy weaker, capital fleeing out of Russia," Obama told CBS.

It is likely that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will announce additional nonlethal aid for Ukraine on Thursday, a senior Pentagon official told CNN.

The Pentagon is still not supporting lethal aid for Ukraine "because it could exacerbate the situation, which is what we do not want to do," the official said.

"If we provide arms and ammunition, then we are in the fight. We don't want that."

Advance stalled 

Since Yanukovych's ouster, Kiev's interim government has faced a wave of protests in the Russian-speaking east.

Pro-Moscow protesters took over government buildings in several cities.

And when Ukraine's armored vehicles rolled Wednesday, its attempt to take back eastern towns from pro-Russian militants seemed to stall.

In Donetsk, six armored vehicles sent into the nearby city of Kramatorsk in the morning later showed up carrying Russian flags in Slaviansk.

Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov told CNN's Christiane Amanpour those Ukrainian soldiers "preferred to switch sides and join the people."

Ukraine's Defense Ministry said the vehicles had been seized by militants.

In the cities of east Ukraine, the atmosphere seemed more relaxed than it was a few days ago, with many residents apparently welcoming the presence of pro-Russian forces and their seized military vehicles.

At the same time, on the road toward Slaviansk, CNN's Phil Black encountered a heavily fortified and well-organized police checkpoint and saw signs of a large military buildup.

Attack helicopters passed overhead while armored vehicles and troop carriers rumbled by.

But despite the heightened military activity, there has so far been no effort to move into the town itself.

Pro-Russian protesters were digging in and consolidating their power.

Gas supplies 

Separately, in a reply to a letter from Putin in which he warned of gas supply disruption, the European Union said it was willing to hold talks with Russia and Ukraine on gas security.

"We believe that this approach allows for the most useful process with the Russian Federation and other third parties," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in his reply, released by the commission.

Russia supplies 30% of Europe's gas needs.

It has threatened to cut off supplies to Ukraine because of debts.

Source: CNN World

Is Ukraine About To Go Nuclear Again?

WASHINGTON, DC -- As tensions escalate on the eastern border of Ukraine, President Barack Obama has called on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government "to cease all efforts to undermine and destabilize" the sovereign nation after the movement of Russian troops into Ukraine and its annexing of Crimea.

A masked gunman stands guard near tanks in Slaviansk, Ukraine, on Wednesday, April 16. Ukraine has seen a sharp rise in tensions since a new pro-European government took charge of the country in February. Moscow branded the new government illegitimate and annexed Ukraine's Crimea region last month, citing threats to Crimea's Russian-speaking majority. And in eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists have seized government and police buildings in as many as 10 towns and cities.

Meanwhile, our European allies continue round-the-clock conversations as the political leadership in Kiev is seemingly helpless to stave off the next potential military land grab.

This is the backdrop to a legislative endeavor in Kiev that, although widely unreported in the West, will fundamentally reshape the world community's dialogue on the Ukrainian crisis.

Two of Ukraine's leading political parties, "Fatherland" and "Strike," have jointly introduced a bill in Parliament that calls for the rejection of the country's 1994 accession to the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Russia's disregard of international law, its apparent successful theft of Crimea and Ukraine's desperate attempt at self-preservation may result in the end of one of the last century's most important diplomatic milestones, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and with it, the efforts of a generation to walk back the spread of nuclear weapons.

A new global nuclear arms race may soon begin, and the world will have Putin to thank.

In 1994, Ukraine, the Russian Federation, the United States and the United Kingdom entered into an agreement to remove former Soviet nuclear weapons from Ukraine, later known as the Budapest Memorandum.

Ukraine agreed to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In the history of nuclear weapons, only four states have ever walked away from nuclear capabilities: three post-Soviet states (Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan) and South Africa, which had covertly developed a nuclear weapons arsenal.

Ukraine's actions were not without significant commitments, however, by the other signatories.

Russia, the U.S. and the UK pledged in part "to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine" and "reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine."

Today, Russia's policies and actions toward Ukraine's Crimea region demonstrate complete disregard for this critically important memorandum and international law. 

As a response, some within the Ukrainian government are looking beyond an immediate call for Western help to a more proactive means of guaranteeing their national security, i.e. regaining nuclear weapons status.

The recently introduced legislation is the latest expression of the growing sentiment that a nuclear Ukraine is a protected Ukraine.

Mustafa Dzhemilev, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament since 1998, recently said he had spoken directly with Putin and told him that because of Russia's breaking of the Budapest Memorandum, "such arrangements will not be trusted by anyone anymore, and that each country that has financial capacity to acquire its own nuclear weapons will be aspired to go down that path, and Ukraine is no exception."

In addition, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Ohryzko recently said, "Ukraine needs to announce that it is walking away from the NPT and immediately restart the full nuclear cycle and manufacturing of all the components of the weapons."

Ironically, the notion of reacquiring nuclear weapons as a security guarantee is a position publicly advocated by Putin himself:

"If you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security. ... This is logical: If you have the bomb, no one will touch you."

These words were written by Putin to the American people in the context of U.S. policy toward Syria in a New York Times opinion piece from September 11.

Today, less than six months later, Putin's decision to disregard a critical agreement in violation of international law -- and in disregard of his own logic -- has set in motion a discussion that could have dire security implications on the Korean peninsula, in Tehran, in South Asia and anywhere nations are weighing the nuclear option for their security posture.

The actions of Russia and Ukraine over the next few weeks have the potential to alter the global nuclear weapons dynamic in a profound and extremely dangerous way.

One probable and immediate consequence of a Ukrainian choice to "go nuclear" would be that Belarus, a Ukrainian neighbor and close Kremlin ally, would also choose to return to its pre-treaty nuclear weapons status through the development of indigenous weapons or, even more likely, invite the placement of Russian nuclear weapons within its borders.

Given Belarus' borders with EU member states Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, this would probably lead to EU and NATO reactions and a reversal of European nuclear stability trends not seen since the Non-Proliferation Treaty entered into force in March 1970.

Putin has sent a clear message to the more than 25 non-nuclear states possessing the technical capabilities to join the nuclear weapons club that the stick of nuclear arms and not the carrot of international law is what guarantees national security.

In the New York Times, he wrote, "Preserving law and order in today's complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not."

It should be the hope of every nation that the crisis in Ukraine is quickly and peacefully resolved and that Putin takes his own words to heart, reversing a course that leads to a world where the phrase "nuclear arms race" is not relegated only to the past.

Source: CNN Opinion

NATO’s Back In Business, Thanks To Russia’s Threat To Ukraine

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- But its efforts are limited to protecting itself, not saving Kiev.

Armed militants outside the regional state building seized by pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk on Wednesday.

Back in 1993, during the earliest days of the Clinton Administration, Senator Richard Lugar of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee warned that with the Soviet Union history, NATO needed to “go out of area, or out of business.” 

Like any self-respecting, self-perpetuating armed bureaucracy, the alliance got the hint, deploying forces—and, in some cases, fighting—in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Gulf of Aden and Libya.

President Clinton may have moved from the world stage, and Senator Lugar may have lost the 2012 Indiana Republican primary to an ultimately-defeated Tea Party candidate, but NATO—thanks to Russia’s threat to Ukraine—is now firmly back in business, finally in its own area.

The North Atlantic alliance made clear Wednesday that “a political solution is the only way forward” in dealing with Russia’s threats to its former fellow Soviet republic.

That may be the only way forward for NATO and the West.

But Russia may not be willing to play fair.

“We call on Russia to be part of the solution,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.

“To stop destabilizing Ukraine, pull back its troops from the borders and make clear it doesn’t support the violent actions of well-armed militias of pro-Russian separatists.”

Good luck with that, Secretary General.

When NATO faced a similar situation in the Balkans in the 1990s, importuning for political solutions failed and ended with thousands of bombing runs against Serbian targets.

The Serbs are Slavs, as are the Russians.

So are the Ukrainians.

Ethnicity isn’t destiny, but it plays a role.

NATO hopes that Thursday’s meeting in Geneva among representatives from Ukraine, Russia, the U.S. and the European Union will ease tensions.

“We continue to call on Russia to take action that de-escalates the situation and the tensions in Ukraine by returning its forces to their pre-crisis positions and numbers; moving its forces from the Ukrainian border as well from Crimea; ceasing its support for armed separatist groups that have seized government buildings, blockaded roads and stockpiled weapons in eastern Ukraine; and engage directly in a dialogue with Ukraine about its concerns when it comes to ethnic Russians in parts of Ukraine,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday.

U.S. aid to Ukraine so far has consisted of 300,000 Meals-Ready-to-Eat for famished fighters in the field.

On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that Wesley Clark, the retired Army general who served as NATO’s commander during the 1998-99 Kosovo war, is urging deliveries of nonlethal aid, including body armor, night-vision goggles and aviation fuel to help Ukraine thwart any Russian invasion.

The list only serves to highlight how little the West is willing to do to help Ukraine.

No one believes it will make much difference if Russian tanks cross the border. 

“We’re actively considering forms of assistance, the kinds of assistance that we may be able to provide to Ukraine,” Carney said.

“We are not considering lethal assistance, but I’m not going to itemize the types of assistance that are under consideration.”

Rasmussen made it clear that NATO is making military moves—but only to calm its jittery new members who fear Moscow.

“We will have more planes in the air, more ships on the water and more readiness on the land,” he said.

“Air policing aircraft will fly more sorties over the Baltic region. Allied ships will deploy to the Baltic Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and elsewhere, as required.”

But their mission is limited to defending NATO’s 28 member states.

There is no appetite in the West for military action to preserve Ukraine’s sovereignty, despite a 1994 pact among Russia, Britain and the U.S. pledging to honor its borders. 

So it looks like the Cold War has returned: the Soviet Union crushed uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, while NATO observed from the sidelines.

Russia did it in Georgia in 2008, and Crimea last month.

It could happen in Ukraine momentarily.

Once again, NATO will be watching.

Source: TIME

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ukraine Is Not Ready For The Consequences Of Taking Russia’s Military Bait

KIEV, Ukraine -- By sending its military to quell the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, the government in Kiev may be setting itself up for a spectacular defeat, as neither its army nor its intelligence services are prepared for a confrontation with Russia.

Ukrainian troops on the outskirts of Izyum, in eastern Ukraine, on April 15, 2014.

Like many of the leading men in Ukraine’s new military pecking order, Petr Mekhed wasn’t exactly ripe for the task of fending off a Russian invasion when he assumed the post of Deputy Defense Minister in February.

His last tour of combat duty was about 30 years ago, during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, after which he reached the rank of colonel in the Red Army.

When revolution in Ukraine broke out this winter, his wartime experience made him better equipped than most at defending the barricades of the Maidan protest camp in the center of Kiev.

But it was not as useful in preparing him to lead his country into war.

“For some issues I’ve had to sit down with a book and study up,” he says.

His conclusion so far is an unsettling one for Ukraine’s political leaders. If they want to find a way out of their conflict with Russia, which edged closer on Tuesday to military confrontation in the eastern region of Donetsk, they have only one way to do it, Mekhed says, and that is to negotiate.

“We’ll never get anywhere through the use of military force,” he tells TIME.

It would be much more effective to undercut Russia’s support for the local separatists by meeting them halfway, Mekhed suggests, with an offer of more autonomy for Ukraine’s eastern regions.

“Our chances of saving Donetsk are now in the hands of our politicians and their ability to sit down with the people there and talk to them.”

But those politicians don’t seem to agree.

On Tuesday morning, Ukraine’s interim President, Oleksandr Turchynov, launched the first military action against the pro-Russian gunmen who seized parts of Donetsk over the weekend.

The assault, which the central government in Kiev termed an antiterrorist operation, reportedly involved more than a dozen armored personnel carriers, as well as helicopters and military trucks that faced off against 30 gunmen for control of an airport near the town of Kramatorsk.

So was Ukraine ready for that kind of standoff? Maybe.

But some of its top military and intelligence officials highly doubt that it is ready for the likely fallout, and whatever support Tuesday’s operation garnered from the White House will probably not translate into much military assistance from the West.

More likely, it will provoke a Russian counterstrike, not from the small group of Russian special forces who have apparently been leading the separatists in Donetsk, but from the full weight of the Russian military.

That would mean game over pretty quickly for Ukraine.

So far, its leaders seem to be enjoying their taste of victory.

When reports came back to Kiev that Tuesday’s operation was a success — that the Ukrainian forces had managed to repel the separatist attack on the airport — Turchynov made a self-congratulatory statement to parliament.

“I’m convinced that there will not be any terrorists left soon in Donetsk and other regions and they will find themselves in the dock — this is where they belong,” he said.

That did not go over well with Vladimir Putin.

In a phone call on Tuesday night with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the Russian President said the crisis in eastern Ukraine had “sharpened drastically” and stressed that the world “must clearly condemn these anticonstitutional actions.”

The world, of course, did no such thing, nor has it done much to help Ukraine prepare for what’s likely coming.

In early March, when Russia had just begun its military occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, Mekhed, a small, soft-spoken man with silver hair and a slight stutter, made his first official visit to Brussels to hold talks with the NATO alliance.

He had no illusions about any of the Western powers coming to Ukraine’s defense, but he held out hope for some help with communications and intelligence.

“We have problems with figuring out what forces are where,” he said, referring to the Russians.

“On top of that, our weapons systems are by and large tied up with Russia, with cooperation with Russia.”

That makes upgrading those systems extremely difficult for Ukraine.

In recent years, its military infrastructure has been “systematically destroyed” through the neglect, corruption and malfeasance of Ukraine’s former leaders, says Mekhed, but bringing them back to working order would require buying up spare parts from Russia, which Moscow has unsurprisingly refused to sell.

On Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before the clashes near the airport, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it was suspending all military supplies to Ukraine.

“May I remind you that Russia has committed not to provide, or to show restraint in providing, weapons to conflict zones,” Russia’s Deputy Minister of Defense Anatoly Antonov said in a statement explaining the decision.

His caveat about “restraint” was apparently meant to make room for Russia’s ongoing sale of weapons to Syria during its civil war.

In those conditions, Ukraine would be unable to repair much of its military hardware even if it had help from NATO; none of the members of that alliance use or produce the kind of kit that Ukraine needs.

“The spare parts all come from Russia,” says Mekhed.

“So we have to find new markets to find similar equipment to arm our troops, and not only weapons, but also training of the servicemen before we can put those weapons on the battlefield.”

That would take months or years, not to mention billions of extra dollars that Ukraine’s nearly bankrupt economy cannot spare.

It is already having enough trouble with the relatively faster and cheaper task of bringing its intelligence services up to scratch.

Much like the weakness of its military, Ukraine’s failures in the field espionage have a lot to do with its fraternal ties to Russia.

“We even have an agreement on the books that forbids our [military intelligence] agencies from working against each other,” says Igor Smeshko, who served as head of Ukraine’s State Security Service from 2003 to 2005.

“We could never have imagined that our Russian brothers would ever fight a war against us,” he says.

“We could never have thought that just when we’d been bloodied from fighting our own tyranny here at home, that we would get a knife in the back from the Russians.” 

In retrospect, that abundance of trust looks painfully naive, but it goes far in explaining why Ukraine let its intelligence work lapse in recent years, particularly near the border with Russia.

That mistake has left it particularly ill equipped to deal with the current phase of the conflict with Russia.

Over the past few days, the troops who have been seizing police stations and other government buildings have borne all the hallmarks of Russian special forces who have removed the insignia from their uniforms — the same tactic Russia used during its conquest of Crimea.

The most effective way for Ukraine to counter that kind of semiclandestine invasion, says Smeshko, would be to deploy small, mobile teams of special-operations troops, the kind that Ukraine’s intelligence services should have at their disposal, to isolate and arrest the Russian saboteurs.

“Only special forces can go up against special forces,” he says.

Instead, the government in Kiev seems to be employing a mix of Interior Ministry police and military troops, and on Tuesday morning, it also sent its first batch of national-guard volunteers, with little or no apparent training, to help fight separatism in eastern Ukraine.

“The troops have a high fighting spirit,” said Andriy Parubiy, the head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, in dispatching them to the east.

“It’s not easy over there,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

“But I’m sure we will win, because with us is God and Ukraine.”

Before assuming one of his country’s most senior military posts in February, Parubiy had zero military experience of any kind other than his work protecting the protest camp in Kiev this winter.

His Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, is a hardened 17-year veteran of the KGB who oversaw Russia’s scorched-earth conquest of Chechnya in 1999–2000.

The mismatched forces now facing off in eastern Ukraine also present a potential risk to the locals.

In the past few days, the pro-Russian separatist troops have proved adept at blending in among mobs of civilians, who have done the heavy lifting in the occupation of numerous government buildings across Donetsk.

The military forces Ukraine has now sent to evict them are not trained to pick out the organizers of those attacks from among the throngs they use.

“And that is the one thing our strategic opponent is waiting for, a picture of mass bloodshed,” says Smeshko.

Considering how little room for error Ukraine has in this operation, Mekhed should perhaps feel lucky to be focusing on a different part of the battlefield.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea left thousands of Ukrainian servicemen marooned on that suddenly foreign peninsula, and Mekhed has been in charge of securing their return to mainland Ukraine.

At the briefing he gave to reporters on Tuesday in Kiev, he focused mostly on all that this effort entails, such as the purchase of sleeping bags, sleeping mats and camouflage netting for all the displaced troops.

“We have to evacuate all of our servicemen and equipment from Crimea, to save what we could salvage from there, to set up new garrisons, and all of that is a whole lot of work,” he told TIME after the briefing at a Kiev hotel.

“So believe me, Russia’s actions have already set us back years.”

And that may just be the beginning.

Source: TIME

Ukrainian Troops Secure Airfield As Operations Against Pro-Russian Militants Begin

DONETSK, Ukraine -- The Ukrainian military on Tuesday secured an airfield threatened by Russian sympathizers, signaling the start of a campaign to counter militants who have stormed official buildings in at least 10 eastern cities.

After days of a cautious response and empty ultimatums, the government’s deployment of troops on Tuesday could signal an escalation of the crisis, which is playing out much like the events that led to Crimea’s annexation by Russia early this year.

Officials in Moscow have sternly warned against using force to deter what they say are “self-defenders” who are acting to protect the interests of ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s east.

Too strong a response, officials in Kiev and Western capitals have wagered, could be used by Russia as a pretext to send its troops spilling over the border.

Fanning those fears ahead of four-party talks set to start within 48 hours in Geneva, Russia on Tuesday slammed the Ukrainian government for waging “war” against its own people.

In a sharply worded statement, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow accused Kiev of violently suppressing peaceful protests “with complete disregard for the legitimate interests of the population in the south east” of Ukraine.

The White House stood by Ukraine’s response.

“The Ukrainian government has a responsibility to provide law and order, and these provocations in eastern Ukraine are creating a situation in which the government has to respond,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.

The government in Kiev appeared to show a new if tempered willingness to back up its pledge in recent days to restore order.

On Tuesday, witnesses reported heavy gunfire as a Ukrainian jet tried to land at an airfield in Kramatorsk, a city 10 miles south of Slovyansk, where pro-Russian forces first set up roadblocks Saturday.

Shortly afterward, Ukrainian troops were ferried to the site by helicopter, landed and encountered a hostile reception by protesters.

What followed, officials and witnesses said, was a tense standoff in which the troops repeatedly opened fire to push protesters back beyond the perimeter fences.

It remained unclear whether the area was fully or temporarily secured.

But acting President Oleksandr Turchynov described the move as part of a staged “counterterrorism operation” against pro-Russian separatists in the northern part of the Donetsk region.

“Soon there will be no terrorists left in Donetsk or any other region,” Turchynov vowed in parliament on Tuesday.

“They will sit in prison, their proper place.”

Stanislav Rechinsky, Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs, told reporters in Kiev that there had been no fatalities during the operation by special Ukrainian forces at the airfield.

Witnesses said that crowds of pro-Russian activists had roughed up a commander in the area who approached them after the airfield was supposed to be secured and that they remained on the airfield’s edge, hurling verbal abuse at military officials.

“The aim of the operation was to avoid casualties among our people, and it is also desirable to save the lives of the separatists, because some of them are our citizens,” Rechinsky said.

In contrast to Ukraine’s official statements, however, Russian state television reported that between four and 11 people had been killed in the operation.

Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted a pro-Russian militiaman as saying that fighters from Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist Right Sector movement and foreign mercenaries were involved in storming the airfield.

The divergent accounts illustrated the gap between Kiev and Moscow as the crisis appeared to be deepening.

Ukrainian troops gather 

On Tuesday, Ukrainian officials and witnesses reported an ongoing buildup of their forces not far from Izyum, a city near the border of Kharkiv and Donetsk provinces in the east.

Izyum is 32 miles northwest of Slovyansk, which Ukrainian forces failed to retake from well-armed pro-Russian activists Sunday in an operation that left two people dead.

An Izyum official involved in the mobilization, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the city was being used as a fueling and feeding station for Ukrainian troops, who began arriving over the weekend and were taking up positions outside the city limits.

Journalists reported seeing columns of armored personnel carriers and buses moving toward Slovyansk.

But Rechinsky denied that the Ukrainian military had moved into the city, suggesting that the government remained leery of a full-on confrontation with pro-Russian forces, some of whom are heavily armed with weapons similar or identical to those used by the Russian military.

Instead, the government focused on further attempts to defuse the situation in Slovyansk and elsewhere through negotiations.

“In Slovyansk, there is no equipment, no troops, although there are many panicked reports in the media about the movement of tanks, armored personnel carriers and so on,” Rechinsky said.

In recent days, Turchynov first vowed to rout the protesters by force, then held out the possibility of a referendum to decide Ukraine’s fate.

But so far, nothing has appeared to move the militants to surrender.

There is deep uncertainty about the technical ability of Ukraine’s underfunded and demoralized military to respond to pro-Russian forces, who Ukrainian officials say are being guided and perhaps supplied by Russian military commanders. 

‘Responsibly and prudently’ 

Turchynov told parliament on Tuesday that the effort to quell the rebellion in the east would “go on gradually, responsibly and prudently.”

He pledged that there would be no civil war, and he emphasized “that these actions are meant for the protection of Ukrainian citizens, stopping terror, criminality and attempts to break our country into pieces.”

The militants represent a minority in eastern Ukraine, but the government in Kiev is also combating a much broader sense of skepticism in the east, with criticism mounting over officials’ handling of the economy in particular.

Driving home that point, the central bank on Tuesday was forced to jack up interest rates in an effort to stem a precipitous fall in the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia. 

Residents in Donetsk — where pro-Russian forces have seized the regional administrative office and are patrolling the area day and night — have also lashed out at government plans to slash gas subsidies to meet the demands of a desperately needed $18 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

“Do they think we are rich?” asked Marina Aleksandrovna, a 50-year-old cleaning woman.

“I am not an economist or a politician, but I can tell you that people are not having to deal with these problems in Russia.”

Source: The Washington Post

Ukraine Is Said To Suffer A Setback In Bid to Confront Pro-Russian Militias

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine -- The opening phase of what the Ukrainian government has called a military operation to confront pro-Russian militants suffered a setback Wednesday morning when six armored personnel carriers flying a Russian flag drove into town here and parked in the central square.

Armed Pro-Russian soldiers in Slovyansk.

Ukrainian media reported that pro-Russian militias had commandeered the vehicles from the Ukrainian Army and driven them to the central square in Slovyansk, about 120 miles from the Russian border.

A crowd gathered to gape at the squat, tracked vehicles and at the red, white and blue flag of Russia flapping in the breeze.

About 100 soldiers in unmarked green uniforms and bearing the equipment of professional infantry guarded the vehicles, but they showed no signs of allegiance other than the single flag.

Some of the soldiers had grenade launchers slung over their shoulders.

If the vehicles were indeed seized from the Ukrainian Army, it was not immediately clear whether they had been taken by force or with the collusion of defecting Ukrainian troops.

Either possibility, however, would signal an escalation by Russian-backed militants in eastern Ukraine., a Ukrainian news website, reported that militants seized the vehicles in a neighboring town, Kramatorsk, where the Ukrainians landed paratroopers Tuesday to secure an airfield, in what was intended to be a show of force.

The Ukrainian general who commanded the military operation, Vasily Krutov, stood near armored personnel carriers outside the town and warned loudly that gunmen who did not surrender their weapons would be “destroyed.”

It was unclear whether the vehicles that were used Wednesday were from this same contingent.

In Brussels, the head of NATO said Wednesday that the alliance would strengthen its military presence along its eastern border in response to the developments in Ukraine.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the alliance’s secretary general, said that NATO would immediately send forces to the region as a deterrent.

He did not specify how many troops or aircraft would be involved or what kind of assets would be deployed.

Earlier this month, the alliance ordered an end to most military cooperation with Russia because of the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and its threatening military posture near eastern Ukraine.

In the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, Parliament met in a closed session Wednesday morning with the heads of the Ukrainian military and security forces.

Elsewhere in Ukraine, government supporters and the police set up roadblocks outside the city of Odessa.

Journalists were told that the roadblocks had been established to prevent Russian militants from entering the city and completing an arc of uprising from the east through the south of Ukraine, in the country’s predominantly Russian-speaking areas.

In Slovyansk, the armored vehicles flying a Russian flag entered the town through a main checkpoint, coming from the direction of Kramatorsk, where they were reportedly seized, rather than from the highway to the border.

They rumbled through the city and parked outside City Hall.

“People say these are the people’s militia,” one woman said, referring to the uniformed men carrying weapons that clearly had not been obtained from the town’s captured police station.

“I don’t know these people. They are not locals.”

“I think we’ll live with the Russians now,” said another spectator near the armored vehicles, which resembled tanks.

The degree of support for seceding from Ukraine in the east is a matter of dispute.

Surveys indicate that a minority supports secession from Ukraine, while more favor greater autonomy within Ukraine, the position supported by the Russian government.

Talks between Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the United States are scheduled for Thursday in Geneva.

The crowd on the central plaza of Slovyansk appeared stunned by the presence of the armed soldiers.

Breaking the silence, one woman yelled “Russia! Russia!” but the crowd did not take up the chant.

Source: The New York Times