The Telegraph & AntiWar.com – 2014-04-02 00:01:22
Ukraine Crisis: Russia ‘Withdrawing Troops from Border’, Putin Tells Merkel
Roland Oliphant, Bruno Waterfield and Andrew Marszal / The Telegraph
MOSCOW & BRUSSELS (March 31, 2014) — Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, told German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday that he has ordered a partial withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border.
During a telephone call the pair agreed to cooperate on possible steps to “restore stability” in Ukraine, and also discussed the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniestria.
“The Russian president informed the chancellor about the partial withdrawal of Russian troops he ordered from the eastern border of Ukraine,” Ms. Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.
The move followed claims by Ukraine and the United States that Russia had massed tens of thousands of troops within striking distance of eastern Ukraine last week. Russia had warned it could send troops into eastern Ukraine to protect Russian speakers there.
Russia formally annexed Crimea on March 21, three weeks after its troops seized control of the region from Ukraine in a largely bloodless takeover.
The development came as Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, arrived in Crimea on Monday with a high-level Kremlin delegation as Russia consolidated its hold on the newly annexed region and sought to reassure local residents that the annexation would leave them materially better off.
Ukraine immediately issued a note of protest after Mr. Medvedev and several other ministers flew into Simferopol, the Crimean capital, to chair a cabinet meeting.
“No resident of Crimea or Sevastopol should lose anything as a result of joining Russia, they should only gain,” Mr. Medvedev told the cabinet session.
“This is what people are expecting from us, that we provide the conditions for a stable and decent life, certainty in the future and the feeling that they are part of a great nation. We must meet these expectations.”
Mr. Medvedev announced a series of measures to boost the region’s flagging economy, including a low-tax special economic zone, slashing the price of air tickets from Moscow so as to undercut holidays in Turkey, and a programme to overhaul the region’s moribund farming sector.
He promised to raise public sector wages to the Russian average by July and announced the creation of a federal ministry for Crimean affairs, indicating a certain lack of faith in the local elites Moscow installed during its seizure of the region last month.
Mr. Medvedev’s visit came after American and Russian diplomats failed to agree a way out of the crisis at crunch talks in Paris on Sunday night.
John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, emerged from four hours of talks with little to show other than a willingness to keep talking.
“We have ideas. We have some proposals that both sides made. And it’s really important for the appropriate consultations to take place before there’s any discussion about that,” Mr. Kerry told reporters in Paris after the talks.
A four-point American plan for de-escalation includes Russian forces withdrawing to their March 1 positions, deployment of impartial observers across Ukraine to reassure Moscow about the treatment of Russian speakers, direct talks between Kiev and Moscow, and recognition of the Ukrainian presidential elections scheduled for May 25.
But Russia in turn is insisting that Ukraine rewrite its constitution to become a federal republic, granting wide-ranging autonomy to individual regions — something that the Kiev government has rejected as invasion by other means.
“We are convinced that federalism is a very important part of constitutional reform because the key is to ensure the unity of Ukraine by respecting the interests of all regions of this country,” Mr. Lavrov said after the Paris talks.
While federalization was discussed on Sunday, Mr. Kerry said any agreement must be between Kiev and Moscow.
The Kiev government on Sunday denounced the Russian proposals as amounting to “the complete capitulation of Ukraine, its dismemberment, and the destruction of Ukrainian statehood.”
“Russia’s proposals for federalization, a second official language, and referendums are viewed in Ukraine as nothing less than proof of Russia’s aggression. We sincerely regret that Minister S. Lavrov had to voice them,” the Ukrainian foreign ministry said in a statement.
NATO foreign ministers will meet in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss the Alliance’s response to Russia’s seizure of Crimea.
Ministers, including William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, are expected to focus on “practical” measures to increase military exercises, such as the enhanced operations of fighter jets and Awacs aircraft over the Baltic States today.
Senior diplomats said the meeting would begin long-term planning work to reconfigure NATO around the new threat from Russia for a decision in June.
The major review will examine whether the Alliance should expand its permanent presence in Eastern Europe, particularly to provide protection for the Baltic States.
“Over the coming months”, military planners will also look at the role of NATO’s Response Force (NRF), which has primarily been used for humanitarian relief.
Ukraine is a member of the NRF, a stand-alone military force available for rapid deployment.
The Alliance will hold air drills over the Baltic States on Tuesday, in an annual drill that has grown in significance following events in Crimea.
Ukraine to Host NATO War Games,
Prompting Russian Warning
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(April 1, 2014) — Ukraine’s parliament today voted unanimously to approve joint military exercises with NATO in the coming months, including two sets of exercises with the United States, two with Poland, and one with Romania.
Ukrainian acting Defense Minister Mykhalio Koval said the move was a straightforward chance to improve the military’s capabilities, which are very much in doubt giving both the age of their equipment and a widespread defections during the Crimean annexation.
The move sparked a warning from the Russian Foreign Ministry against getting too cozy with NATO, saying growing Ukraine-NATO ties would cause problems both for Russia-NATO relations and for economic ties.
The warning went on to say that “future economic ties will largely depend on the actions Ukraine takes in its foreign policy.” Though Ukraine’s interim government is keen to improve ties with the EU, they remain greatly dependent on Russia for trade, especially in energy.
NATO Plans Military Buildup in Caucasus
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(April 1, 2014) — US military interest in Azerbaijan usually begins and ends with it being on the border with Iran, but today NATO’s interest in the tiny republic centers on its being along a border with Russia.
You can’t have a border with Russia these days, or in Armenia and Moldova’s case be just kind of close to Russia, without NATO looking to throw military assets at you these days to “counter” an imagined Russian threat.
Moldova, which at least sort of borders Ukraine (tiny autonomous Transnistria notwithstanding), is getting a NATO “liaison office,” according to the reports, while Armenia is getting full-fledged military exercises, and Azerbaijan is getting a defense rehaul aimed at protecting its offshore oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea.
While NATO has imagined a looming problem in Moldova over the status of Transnistria, Russia has extremely cozy relations with both Azerbaijan and Armenia, and the only hint of any military tension for either Armenia or Azerbaijan in the region are with one another, not with Russia.
Rather, NATO seems to be looking to use the fiction of an “expansionist” Russia to engage in some military expansion of its own, insinuating itself ever-deeper into Asia for no apparent reason beyond just sticking it to Russia.
US to Send More Troops to Eastern Romania
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(April 1, 2014) — The Russian annexation of Crimea has become a catch-all justification for the US to escalate its military presence virtually anywhere even remotely close, and today it was announced they are planning to send hundreds of ground troops to eastern Romania.
There are already 1,000 US troops in Mihail Kohalniceanu, and President Traian Basescu says the US has requested permission to add 600 more “for specific missions” in the Black Sea.
The letter announcing the request to Romania’s parliament also reported the US plans an unspecified increase in the number of aircraft at the base, part of the US effort to increase its military might in the Black Sea region.
Despite making a huge deal of increasing their sway there, the Black Sea hasn’t seen significant naval combat in generations, nor would there be any conceivable reason to expect Romania, a NATO member for the past decade, would even theoretically be a target for invasion by Russia, which doesn’t border them.
Poland Wants 10,000 NATO Troops
To ‘Defend From Russia’
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(April 1, 2014) — The Polish government is really using the Russian annexation of the Crimea as a chance to lay out a laundry list of demands for massive increases in NATO military aid today, hitting out at the “slow pace” of the build-up so far.
It seems slow because Poland’s ambitions for a NATO force are so grand, with Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski pushing for a “permanent” deployment that includes a minimum of 10,000 ground troops.
Sikorski complained Poland has been a NATO member for 15 years and all they’ve gotten was a single conference center out of the deal, insisting he wants a “prominent, major presence.”
Prime Minister Donald Tusk added that NATO membership came with a promise of military protection, and expressed annoyance at the lack of ground troops pouring into his country over the “threat” perceived by his government, but which no one seriously thinks is going to end with Russia invading Poland.
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