Thursday, March 13, 2014

Russia announces start of military exercises near Ukrainian border

Move comes as Ukraine backs creation of new force to keep Russian troops from advancing beyond Crimea
Link to video: Russia begins military exercises near Ukrainian border
Russia has started military exercises near the Ukrainian border, it has announced, in what is likely to be seen as a show of force in the standoff with Kiev and the west over Crimea.
The defence ministry confirmed on Thursday that exercises involving 8,500 artillery men had begun in the southern military district near the border. Pictures appeared on social media earlier showing military vehicles on the move in the area.
The announcement came as the Ukrainian parliament unanimously backed the creation of a force of up to 60,000 volunteers to keep Russian troops from advancing beyond the Crimean peninsula. The national security and defence council chief, Andriy Parubiy, said the new National Guard would "ensure state security, defend the borders, and eliminate terrorist groups" – a term many in Kiev use for the well-armed militias who patrol Crimea alongside Russian troops.
As tensions continued to rise, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, warned that if a planned referendum in Crimea took place on Sunday a "serious series of steps" would be taken by the US and EU against Russia. He said tension between Russia and the US over Ukraine had the capacity to affect attempts by the two countries to find a solution to the conflict in Syria.
Separately, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, discussed proposals for resolving the crisis during a telephone conversation with Kerry on Thursday, the Russian foreign ministry said.
Lavrov and Kerry, who are due to meet in London on Friday, discussed the situation, "taking into account existing Russian and US proposals to normalise the atmosphere and provide for civil peace", the ministry said.
Earlier, Angela Merkel warned Moscow it risked massive political and economic damage if it refused to change course on Ukraine, saying western leaders were united in their readiness to impose sanctions on Russia if necessary.
The German chancellor, using her strongest language since the start of the crisis and removing any suspicion that Germany might seek to avoid a confrontation with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said his actions would lead to catastrophe for Ukraine and much more.
"We would not only see it, also as neighbours of Russia, as a threat. And it would not only change the European Union's relationship with Russia," she told the German parliament. "No, this would also cause massive damage to Russia, economically and politically."
Merkel has acknowledged that her efforts to persuade Putin to negotiate via a "contact group" with the transition government in Kiev – which he accuses of ousting the Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych unlawfully – have failed and time is running out.
Russian troops have seized control of the Ukrainian region of Crimea on the Black Sea, backing separatists who have taken over the local government and are preparing a referendum that could pave the way for annexation by Russia.
Merkel reiterated that if Putin continued to snub diplomacy and let the referendum in Crimea go ahead, the EU – in close co-ordination with Washington and Nato – would impose tougher sanctions than the largely symbolic measures taken so far.
Travel bans and asset freezes on people and firms accused by Brussels of helping to violate Ukraine's territorial integrity could be approved by EU foreign ministers on Monday. While next Thursday, European leaders will discuss action affecting trade with Russia.
"To be absolutely clear, none of us want it to come to such measures but we are all ready and determined to if they are unavoidable," Merkel said.
Germany receives more than a third of its gas and oil from Russia and more than 6,000 German firms are active there. A poll last week showed that a majority of Germans opposed sanctions against Russia.
Merkel grew up behind the Iron Curtain, speaks Russian and has tried to use her influence with Putin, whom she has known for 14 years, in countless phone calls. The former KGB officer, who himself speaks German, is said to respect her as a strong leader.
But in an unusually emotive speech, Merkel lamented that the Russian leader was destroying years of post-Soviet rapprochement and was dragging Europe back into "a conflict about spheres of influence and territorial claims that we know from the 19th or 20th century but thought were a thing of the past".
"The territorial integrity of Ukraine cannot be called into question," she told the Bundestag lower house of parliament, making clear that Crimea could not be compared to Kosovo, which seceded from the former Yugoslavia in 2008.

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