Category Archives: Russia

Ukraine crisis: US warns Russia of more sanctions over ‘saboteurs’ in east (+video)

The US and Russia said their top diplomats would meet soon to seek a way out of the Ukraine crisis, but their starkly opposed interpretations of the turmoil in the east offer little prospect of common ground.

With another piece of eastern Ukraine clamoring to break away and associate with Russia, the White House is warning Moscow of fresh sanctions if it encourages the foment.

But even as the US suggested strongly Monday that Russia is behind the “separatists, saboteurs, and provocateurs” pressing for Ukraine’s break-up, Russia responded that instead of “finger-pointing at Russia” the Ukrainian government and its supporters should “listen to these legitimate demands” of the Ukrainian people.

The US and Russia confirmed that their top diplomats would meet soon to seek a way out of the Ukrainian crisis, but the starkly opposed interpretations of events from the two sides offer little prospect of common ground for forging a way forward.

Even as White House officials suggested Monday that Russia is behind an “escalation” of unrest in three cities in eastern Ukraine over the weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry announced he would meet within the next 10 days with officials from Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union in an effort to calm the deteriorating security and political environment in Ukrainian regions bordering Russia.

Following on last week’s call by President Obama for Russia to pull back the tens of thousands of troops it has amassed along the border, the White House suggested Monday it was the presence of those troops that encouraged pro-Russia demonstrators in eastern Ukraine to seize government buildings, declare “independence,” and demand a referendum to secede from Ukraine – the same scenario followed by the breakaway province of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in late March.

By Monday night Ukrainian authorities reported that special forces had retaken a government building in Donetsk seized by pro-Russia demonstrators, but they did not go on to suggest that the instability in the eastern part of the country was over.

“What’s clear is that this [weekend unrest] is a result of increased Russian pressure on Ukraine,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “We see it in the troops that have massed on the border.” The US suspects Russia is sending paid outsiders into Donetsk and other cities to feed anti-Ukraine sentiment – a suspicion the White House aired with reporters.

Any evidence of Russia moving into eastern Ukraine, “either overtly or covertly,” would be a “very serious escalation,” Mr. Carney said. Such subversive behavior would prompt the US to impose “further sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy,” he added.

Mr. Kerry relayed the warning of additional sanctions directly to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a telephone conversation Monday. Kerry told his Russian counterpart that “any further Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine will incur further costs for Russia,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Kerry told Mr. Lavrov the weekend actions in eastern Ukraine “do not appear to be a spontaneous set of events,” Ms. Psaki said, and he further called on Russia to “publicly disavow the activities of separatists, saboteurs, and provocateurs.”

The US and to a lesser extent the European Union have already imposed sanctions on Russian individuals and entities. But the two Western powers have agreed to ramp up those sanctions to cover whole sectors of the Russian economy – such as the critical energy sector, and finance and banking – in response to any move by Russia into eastern Ukraine.

With the US threatening additional sanctions and Ukrainian officials accusing Moscow of following a strategy designed to “divide and destroy” Ukraine, Russia’s response seemed designed to appear calm and measured.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Lavrov told Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya in a phone call Monday that Ukraine must avoid using force against pro-Russia demonstrators. “Enough finger pointing at Russia,” the Russian ministry said, adding, “It’s time to listen to these legitimate demands.”

In his conversation with Kerry, Lavrov suggested some of the conditions Russia will set for Ukraine, according to a ministry statement. Those include a national dialogue “with the full-scale participation of all political forces and regions” on creation of a federal governing structure, and “formalization of [Ukraine’s] non-aligned status.”

Neither “condition” is likely to sit well with the pro-Western interim government in Kiev that replaced the ousted government of pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovich, who fled the country after scores of protesters were killed by security forces in pro-Europe demonstrations.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk charged Russia with fomenting the weekend uprisings as part of an “anti-Ukrainian plan” to ultimately seize more Ukrainian territory.

Ukraine is planning to hold national elections in late May, but the interim government has already signed an association agreement with the European Union and last week agreed to closer cooperation with NATO meant to boost NATO training of the Ukrainian military and Ukrainian participation in some NATO exercises.

Putin Says Deal With Ukraine Was a Good-Will Gesture

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Thursday explained his decision to rescue Ukraine with a $15 billion bailout and discounts on natural gas as a gesture of good will given the close historic ties between the two countries.

“I will be very frank with you and don’t take it as an irony — we very often use the term ‘brother nation’ or ‘sister nation,’” Mr. Putin said, seeming buoyant and supremely confident at his annual news conference here.

“We see the current situation, both political and economical is quite difficult,” Mr. Putin said. “So if we say it is a sister nation, we should do what family members do. We should support our sister nation when in dire straits. This is the number one reason why this decision was taken.”

Mr. Putin’s announcement of the loan and gas deal on Tuesday threw a lifeline to Ukraine’s embattled president, Viktor F. Yanukovich, who has been facing not only a severe and deepening economic crisis but also more than three weeks of civil unrest from protesters who have occupied Independence Square and seized control of several public buildings in Kiev, the capital.

The loan from Russia, using money from its national welfare fund, spares Mr. Yanukovich — at least for the moment — from further negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, which in exchange for its own aid package had demanded systemic economic reforms, including some tough austerity measures.

Mr. Putin’s move to offer unilateral assistance was a bold and risky step. The rules for investing money from the Russian national welfare fund require long-term bond ratings of at least AA, while Ukraine’s current rating from both Fitch and Standard & Poor’s is B- with a negative outlook.

But the bailout also underscored Russia’s economic and strategic interests in Ukraine and Mr. Putin’s resolve in keeping Ukraine within the Russian sphere of influence.

Russia maneuvered aggressively to dissuade Mr. Yanukovich from signing far-reaching political and trade agreements with the European Union and, by offering the bailout package, Mr. Putin ensured that Mr. Yanukovich would not revive those accords anytime soon.

To Mr. Putin’s evident glee, his bold steps left European officials stunned, and scrambling for a response.

Mr. Putin traditionally holds a large news conference in December, spending hours answering questions about the past year. Compared to a year ago, when he seemed tense and appeared to be in pain from a lingering back injury, Mr. Putin on Thursday seemed in high spirits and eager to spar with reporters.

In recent months, he has recorded a number of foreign policy successes that have established Russia as a dominant force in counterbalancing Western dominance of world affairs. These have included granting temporary asylum to Edward J. Snowden, the former contractor for the National Security Agency who exposed aggressive American surveillance programs; protecting his longtime ally, President Bashar al-Assad, from an American military strike by proposing a plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons; and swooping in to help Ukraine.

In just over a month, Mr. Putin will play host to the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, which he seems clearly to view as integral to his legacy as Russia’s pre-eminent leader of the 21st century. Ahead of the Olympics, Russia has come under criticism for its human rights record, and also for some new legislation, including a law banning propaganda on nontraditional relationships that is widely viewed in the West as an effort to suppress homosexuality.

In response to a question about what seems to be a clash of cultures between Russia and the West, Mr. Putin said that Russia was merely defending its values and traditions, and he suggested that the West was trying to impose its views on others.

“It is not about criticizing somebody,” Mr. Putin said. “It is about protecting us from aggressive behavior on the part of some social groups, which I believe do not just live in a way they like, but they try to aggressively impose their opinion on other people and other countries.”