AS UKRAINE MOVES AGAINST MILITIAS, RUSSIA BEGINS MILITARY DRILLS

24.04.14


NEW YORK TIMES. 

By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN, ANDREW ROTH and ALAN COWELLAPRIL 24, 2014

MOSCOW — Russia said Thursday that it would undertake military drills along the Ukrainian border in response to a mobilization by Ukrainian government forces against pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine, the country’s defense minister said.

The move was certain to sharply raise tensions with the United States and its Western allies, who have demanded repeatedly that Russia cease its efforts to stir unrest in eastern Ukraine and desist from military action along the border, where the Kremlin has massed as many as 40,000 troops.

The defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, said that the exercises would include troop movements on the ground as well as flights by the Russian air force. Mr. Shoigu also complained about NATO exercises in Poland and the Baltics, which the alliance announced recently in response to previous Russian threats of military intervention in Ukraine.

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“The starting gun on the use of weapons against their own civilians has already been fired,” Mr. Shoigu said, according to the Interfax news service. “If today this military machine is not stopped, it will lead to a large number of the dead and wounded.”

“We have to react to such developments,” Mr. Shoigu, was quoted as saying.

Ukrainian forces were reported to be mobilizing in the eastern part of the country against pro-Russian separatists on Thursday in what appeared to be a limited action on the outskirts of Slovyansk, a stronghold of militants allied with the Kremlin.

Elsewhere, the Ukrainian interim authorities said Thursday that “civilian activists” had regained control of City Hall in the southeastern city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, forcing pro-Russian protesters to leave without bloodshed. There was no independent corroboration of the account, published by Arsen B. Avakov, the interior minister, on Facebook. News reports offered a different version of the events, saying that the building had been stormed by masked men who used baseball bats to beat the occupiers.

In response to the military activity in southeast Ukraine, Russian military battalions deployed in the south and the west of Russia will begin maneuvers, Sergei K. Shoigu, the Russian defense minister said, according to a bulletin from the Interfax news agency. The maneuvers will include air force exercises along the border, Mr. Shoigu was quoted as saying.

Earlier in the day, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, answering questions at a public forum in St. Petersburg, said any fighting would have an impact on relations with Moscow and would prove that Russia was justified in interfering in Crimea.

“If, in fact, the Kiev regime has started to use the armed forces against people inside the country, then, with no doubt, it is a serious crime against their own nation,” Mr. Putin said at a forum for regional reporters and media figures that was broadcast live on Rossiya 24 television.

Referring to the interim leadership in Kiev as a “junta,” the usual description used by the Russian government, Mr. Putin said that Ukraine’s decision to act was “just a punitive operation” that would have consequences, including on “intergovernmental relations” between Moscow and Kiev.

Russia maintains that it was forced to intervene in Crimea, and ultimately to annex the peninsula, because of a threat to the safety of Russians living there. No such incidents were confirmed by outside observers, but on Thursday Mr. Putin said, “What we can see in Ukraine’s east, undoubtedly, would have happened in Crimea, had we not taken certain timely measures to protect the interests of the people in Crimea.”

Outside of Slovyansk, up to five “terrorists” were killed in fighting at three checkpoints, the Interior Ministry said. In Ukraine, there is often no independent corroboration of official accounts. A separatist commander said Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces clashed at a roadblock in fighting that left one combatant dead and one wounded.

Within the city itself, there were few signs of imminent attack, even as some members of the militia described taking part in clashes with a column of armored government vehicles. Outside of the captured office of the mayor in the center of the city, several militia members in face masks claimed the army had initiated the raid but said the government troops had been beaten off after reinforcements had arrived. That information could not be immediately verified.

One man in camouflage loading supplies from the mayor’s office into a silver sedan said he had taken part in the fighting and had seen three members of his militia killed and three injured. He declined to give more details before speeding off.

In Mariupol, Mr. Avakov said, the mayor’s office was “liberated for normal work” to resume more than a week after pro-Russian protesters first occupied it — part of a string of such moves by allies of the Kremlin, some supported by masked gunmen, in several locations across eastern Ukraine.

In his Facebook posting, Mr. Avakov said there had been “no victims” in the struggle for City Hall in Mariupol, but that bomb disposal experts were checking the building for explosives.

The Associated Press quoted Yulia Lasazan, a spokeswoman for Mariupol’s police department, as saying that roughly 30 masked men had used baseball bats to beat pro-Russia protesters after storming the building early Thursday. The occupiers did not resist, even though some of them were believed to be armed, but called the police instead, The A.P. said. Five people were taken to a hospital, Ms. Lasazan said.

She said the police were controlling the perimeter and were negotiating with the remaining protesters, asking them to leave the building.

While the interim authorities in Kiev have been promising to revive a military effort to reassert control of the eastern part of the country, the campaign had barely registered Wednesday. The agreement struck last week in Geneva, intended to reduce tensions in the region, frayed even further as the United States and Russia exchanged warnings and accusations about meddling in the region.

President Obama, on a trip to Asia, warned Russia on Thursday that the United States had more economic sanctions “teed up,” The A. P. reported, although he acknowledged that his ability to influence Mr. Putin was limited.

“I understand that additional sanctions may not change Mr. Putin’s calculus,” Mr. Obama said during a joint news conference in Tokyo with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, The A.P. reported. “How well they change his calculus in part depends on not only us applying sanctions, but also the cooperation of other countries.”

At the forum, Mr. Putin said Western sanctions were having a negative effect on some economic indicators and activity, like credit ratings and the cost of loans, but these were not “critical.” They would also harm the global economy, he said.

David M. Herszenhorn reported from Moscow, Andrew Roth  from Slovyansk, Ukraine, and Alan Cowell from London. Reporting was contributed by Neil MacFarquhar  from Moscow, Alan Cowell from London, C.J. Chivers and Noah Sneider from Slovyansk, and Andrew Higgins from Kiev.

 

 



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