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WASHINGTON – One by one, President Barack Obama’s warnings to Russia are being brushed aside by President Vladimir Putin, who appears to only be speeding up efforts to formally stake his claim to Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
In the week since Obama first declared there would be “costs” if Putin pressed into Crimea, Russian forces have taken control of the region and a referendum has been scheduled to decide its future. Obama declared the March 16 vote a violation of international law, but in a region where ethnic Russians are the majority, the referendum seems likely to become another barrier to White House efforts to compel Putin to pull his forces from Crimea.
“The referendum vote is going to serve for Putin, in his mind, as the credibility and legitimacy of Russia’s presence there,” said Andrew Kuchins, the director of the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
If Crimea votes to join Russia, the referendum could also put Obama in the awkward position of opposing the outcome of a popular vote.
The White House has tried to match Russia’s assertive posture by moving quickly to impose financial sanctions and travel bans on Russians and other opponents of Ukraine’s new central government. U.S. officials have also urgently tried to rally the international community around the notion that Russia’s military maneuvers in Crimea are illegal, even seeking support from China, Moscow’s frequent ally against the West.
“I am confident that we are moving forward together, united in our determination to oppose actions that violate international law and to support the government and people of Ukraine,” Obama said Thursday.
The European Union also announced Thursday that it was suspending talks with Putin’s government on a wide-ranging economic agreement and on granting Russian citizens visa-free travel within the 28-nation bloc — a long-standing Russian objective.
The White House says it still believes a diplomatic solution to the dispute with Russia is possible. Obama spoke with Putin for more than an hour Thursday, outlining a potential resolution that would include Russia pulling its forces back in Crimea and direct talks between the Kremlin and Ukraine.
But the fast-moving developments in Crimea may mean that the ultimate question facing Obama is not be what the U.S. can do to stop Russia from taking control of Crimea, but what kind of relationship Washington can have with Moscow should that occur.
White House advisers insist the U.S. could not go back to a business as usual approach with Russia if Moscow were to annex Crimea or recognize its independence. But that may be seen as empty threat to the Kremlin after the U.S., as well as Europe, did just that in 2008 after Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway territories of Georgia. Russia also continues to keep military forces in both territories.
Privately, U.S. officials say Russia is running a similar playbook as it seeks to increase its influence in Crimea. And regional experts say Putin also appears to have a larger goal: influencing central government lawmakers in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv as they prepare for elections later this spring.
“It says to the Ukrainians, Don’t mess with me or I’ll slice off a finger,” said Matthew Rojansky, a Russia analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The months-long political crisis in Ukraine bubbled over late last month when protesters in Kyiv ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. Amid the chaos, thousands of Russian forces took control of Crimea, a strategically important outpost in the Black Sea where Moscow has a military base.
The outcome of the Crimea referendum is not guaranteed, but there are clear indications the region will choose to side with Russia. About 60 per cent of Crimea’s population already identifies itself as Russian. And Crimea’s 100-seat parliament voted unanimously Thursday in favour of joining Russia.
The referendum had been scheduled for March 30, but was pushed up two weeks. And while the original vote was only on whether Crimea should get enhanced local powers, the peninsula’s residents will now also vote on whether to join Russia.
U.S. officials say they believe Putin was involved in orchestrating the referendum, though the Russian leader made no public statements about the planned vote. Earlier in the week, Putin said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, while insisting its population has the right to determine the region’s status in a referendum.
U.S. officials say they also see an unlikely ally emerging in China, which has frequently sided with Russia at the United Nations Security Council in blocking Western actions. While China has not condemned Russia’s actions outright, Beijing’s ambassador to the U.N. this week said it supported “noninterference” and respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, spoke this week with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi. The White House said the officials agreed on the need for a peaceful resolution to the dispute that “upholds Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
It appears unlikely China would actually take punitive actions against Russia. U.S. officials say Beijing is largely acting out of self-interest and appears to view the developments in Crimea through the prism of a nation that also has ethnic minorities who live in border regions and identify more closely with neighbouring countries.
Amid the standoff in Crimea, observations from this time lend some insight into the tangled roots of the crisis.
- Vladimir Putin has been hiding his intentions in plain sight. In an infamous 2005 speech, he declared that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the “major geopolitical disaster of the century.” But more to the point, he lamented the fact that “tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.” This was dog-whistle politics in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and elsewhere. People were listening. Were we or the Europeans?
- Ukrainian culture is deep and distinctive. When I first traveled to Kiev and Odessa by way of Lvov as a student in the early 1970s, I got lecture after lecture about the universal genius of Taras Shevchenko, the Pushkin/Shakespeare of the country.
- Even so, independent Ukrainian nationhood has been more of a romantic dream than a political reality. Lithuanians, Poles and Russians have run the country for most of the last millennium. The main avenue of Kiev is lined with Soviet architecture. The Russians designed Ukraine’s most beautiful city, Odessa, as the St. Petersburg of the South. And it is.
- The crowd on the Maidan, according to an eye witness, was a brave, spontaneous and democratic one. It wasn’t manufactured by higher powers. “They just kept marching forward knowing they would get shot,” said the observer, an American who was in the city on business.
- But the new ruling group, empowered by the street protesters, won’t necessarily be a total contrast to the rapacious Yanukovych bunch. “Ukraine is basically tribes of billionaires fighting with each other over resources,” said a former U.S. government official who has worked for more than one tribe there as a political and security adviser.
- Historically and culturally, Crimea isn’t Ukraine. Sevastopol and Yalta, famous spots on the peninsula, feel Russian when you visit. Sevastapol is home to monuments –- literally and operationally –- to Russian military power: the old Russian fleet submarine bays; the dolphin training center (like a shabby Sea World); the stone markers representing Soviet battles in World War II. Yalta, an almost mystical name to the old Russian leisure class, is home to the dachas of famous Russian artists and the World War II meeting of Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. When you visit the Czarist summer home that played host to that meeting, there is nothing Ukrainian about the place in any sense.
- Ironically, and confusingly, old Kiev was the birthplace of Eastern Slavic culture and faith, the place where Vladimir I in 980 decided to adopt Christianity. Evidence of this history is on display to this day, in sacred catacombs that contain rows of skulls of monks from many centuries ago. Russia and Ukraine are yoked together: uncomfortably, sometimes violently, but inevitably.
- The definition of what is Ukraine has always been elastic around the edges. The first Ukrainian city I visited as a student in a Volkswagen bus in 1970 was Lvov, in what was then called “Western Ukraine.” It had the feel of an Austrian or Polish town, a Middle European city, and for good reason: at one time or another, it had belonged to both. (Under the Austrians it was known as Lemberg.)
- There is not the same tradition of American-style ideas of freedom — sometimes glorified in the abstract, and paid lip service to by Putin –- in Russia or Ukraine.When I was traveling on a post-graduate fellowship from the Watson Foundation, my carefully limited visa allowed me to drive to Kiev and Odessa, but not to deviate from that route in any way, for any length of time. Well, I wanted to visit Bila Treskva, an hour south of Kiev, where my mother’s ancestors were from. So I drove there without permission. It took the authorities only a few hours to find me, take me into custody and question me for a couple of hours. Before they let me go they made me sign a document admitting my malfeasance. It was in Russian.
LONDON, Feb 23 (Reuters) – Britain warned Russia on Sunday against intervening in Ukraine’s “complex” crisis, saying London wanted to contribute to an international economic programme aimed at shoring up the “desperately difficult” situation of the Ukrainian economy.
In comments that may anger Moscow, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his government was in regular contact with the Russian government to try to persuade it that closer ties between Ukraine and the European Union should not worry it.
“If there’s an economic package, it will be important that Russia doesn’t do anything to undermine that economic package and is working in cooperation and support of it,” Hague told BBC TV.
When asked if he was worried that Russia might “send in the tanks” to defend the interests of Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine, Hague warned against what he called “external duress” or Russian intervention.
“It would really not be in the interests of Russia to do any such thing. We have to keep up the communication with Russia as we are doing … so that the people of Ukraine can choose their own way forward. There are many dangers and uncertainties.”
Ukraine’s parliament voted to remove President Viktor Yanukovich on Saturday after three months of street protests, while his arch-rival Yulia Tymoshenko hailed opposition demonstrators as “heroes” in an emotional speech in Kiev after she was released from jail.
The crisis began as protests against Yanukovich’s decision to abandon a trade agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia, which promised to lend Ukraine $15 billion euros. Ukraine needs the money — foreign investment inflows fell by almost half last year, to a net $2.86 billion from $4.13 billion in 2012
Britain has so far assumed a lower profile on Ukraine than countries such as Germany and Poland, though Prime Minister David Cameron spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin last Thursday about the situation there and Hague said he’d be talking to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday.
Hague said the priority was to persuade Moscow that the fate of Ukraine – a country that was part of the Soviet Union and has been within Russia’s sphere of influence for decades – was not what he called “a zero-sum game” and that closer ties with the EU were not a bad thing.
“It’s in the interests of the people of Ukraine to be able to trade more freely with the EU. It’s the interests of the people of Russia for that to happen as well.”
He said he didn’t know what Russia’s “next reaction” would be, but he pushed the Ukrainian opposition to move urgently to form a government of national unity, agree arrangements for new elections, and to crack on with shoring up the economy.
“While all this has been happening, the Ukrainian economy is in a desperately difficult situation,” Hague said. “And they need an economic programme that the rest of us, through the International Monetary Fund and other institutions, can support so that they can stave of an even more serious economic situation.”
Ukraine Crisis Talks: President Viktor Yanukovich Says Deal Reached, Vows To Form Unity Government (VIDEO/PHOTOS)
KIEV, Feb 21 (Reuters) – Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich announced concessions to his pro-European opponents on Friday, including a plan to hold early elections, but it was unclear whether the opposition would accept such an EU-mediated deal to end a violent crisis.
Russian-backed Yanukovich, under pressure to quit from mass demonstrations in central Kiev, promised a national unity government and constitutional change to reduce his powers, as well as the presidential polls.
He made the announcement in a statement on the presidential website without waiting for a signed agreement with opposition leaders after at least 77 people were killed in the worst violence since Ukraine became independent 22 years ago.
“There are no steps that we should not take to restore peace in Ukraine,” he said. “I announce that I am initiating early elections.”
EU mediators trying to broker a compromise said the opposition was seeking last minute changes, but they still expected a deal to be signed on Friday. There were fist fights in parliament as the political tension mounted.
The sprawling nation of 46 million with a shattered economy and endemic corruption is at the centre of a geopolitical tug-of-war between Russia and the European Union.
The German and Polish foreign ministers were in Kiev to promote a political compromise to end the bloodshed amid a stand-off between riot police and anti-government protesters who have occupied a central square for nearly three months.
Poland’s Radoslaw Sikorski tweeted that he and Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier were going to meet representatives of the street protesters to discuss the draft agreement.
Ukraine was at a “delicate moment”, Sikorski said on his Twitter account, adding in an apparent message to opposition leaders: “All sides need to remember that compromise means getting less than 100 percent.”
A table was set up for a signing ceremony in the presidency building with nameplates for three opposition leaders.
Whether grassroots activists who want Yanukovich out now will accept such a gradual transition was uncertain.
“This is just another piece of paper. We will not leave the barricades until Yanukovich steps down. That’s all people want,” said Anton Solovyov, 28, an IT worker protesting in the central Independence Square.
Earlier, police said in a statement that anti-government militants fired on security forces near the square, scene of a three-month-old protest vigil. However, there was no confirmation of such an incident and no report of casualties.
The square, known as Maidan or “Euro-Maidan”, appeared peaceful, with thousands of demonstrators chanting anti-government slogans interspersed with patriotic singing.
SCUFFLES IN PARLIAMENT
Armed police briefly entered the parliament building while lawmakers were holding an emergency session but they were quickly ejected, opposition leader Arseny Yatsenyuk said.
Ukraine faces the risk of civil war or even a break-up, and rage has spread even into the parliamentary chamber. Members exchanged punches when speaker Volodymyr Rybak tried to adjourn proceedings.
Opposition deputies were angered because it would mean delaying a possible vote on a resolution pressing for constitutional changes to restrict the president’s powers. The speaker left the chamber and debate continued.
If signed and implemented, the deal would be a setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has made tying Ukraine into a Moscow-led Eurasian Union a cornerstone of his efforts to reunite as much as possible of the former Soviet Union.
Putin appointed his own envoy to the talks at Yanukovich’s request on Thursday but it was not clear what role, if any, Russian officials had in the negotiations.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk cautioned that there was only a tentative accord so far. “The agreement has not yet been reached. What’s been settled is the agreement’s draft,” Tusk told reporters in Warsaw.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who was involved in the mediation effort earlier in the night, said the opposition needed to consult.
“The opposition wants to consult with some of its members, which is entirely understandable,” he told Europe 1 radio. “In this sort of situation, as long as things haven’t really been wrapped up, it’s important to remain very cautious.”
YANUKOVICH SUPPORT EBBS
After 48 hours in which the fate of Ukraine was fought out in the square, Yanukovich was rapidly losing support.
The deputy chief of the armed forces resigned and opposition deputies in parliament voted to overturn severe anti-terrorist laws enacted by Yanukovich’s government this month and ordered security forces back to barracks.
In another sign of the severity of the crisis, ratings agency Standard & Poor’s cut Ukraine’s credit rating for the second time in three weeks on Friday, citing the increased risk of default.
S&P said latest developments in the crisis made it less likely that Ukraine would receive desperately needed Russian aid. Ukraine cancelled a planned issue of 5-year Eurobonds worth $2 billion, it told the Irish Stock Exchange where the debt would have been listed. Kiev had hoped Russia would buy the bonds to help it stave off bankruptcy.
Russia’s economy minister said Moscow was still undecided on the next $2 billion installment and was awaiting clarity on the government in Ukraine.
The health ministry said 77 people had been killed since Tuesday afternoon, which meant at least 47 died in Thursday’s clashes. That was by far the worst violence since Ukraine’s independence.
On Thursday, EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels imposed targeted sanctions on Ukraine and threatened more if the authorities failed to restore calm.
In further diplomatic efforts, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel who in turn discussed Ukraine with Putin. Moscow has strongly opposed what it sees as Western interference in Moscow’s sphere of influence in Ukraine. (Additional reporting by Richard Balmforth, Alessandra Prentice, Vasily Fedosenko and Pavel Polityuk in Kiev, John Irish in Paris and Francesco Guarascio and Adrian Croft in Brussels; Writing by Paul Taylor; editing by David Stamp)
With Putin hoping that they can just keep it from going full civil war for a few more days, Ukraine continues to slide towards a dismal result. This morning sees the next level of escalation in the break-away Western region:
- *UKRAINE’S SECURITY SERVICE SAYS WEAPONS CACHE STOLEN: INTERFAX
- *UKRAINE SECURITY SERVICE SAYS PROTESTERS SEIZED 1,500 GUNS
- *UKRAINE SERVICE SAYS PROTESTERS SEIZED 100,000 ROUNDS OF AMMO
- *UKRAINE SERVICE SAYS PROTESTERS GUILTY OF `TERRORIST ACTS’
And with that, the ‘excuse’ the military needed to get involved as Interfax reports the Ukraine’s SBU starts “Anti-terrorist” operation in the Western region of Ivano-Frankvisk. With 25 dead and 241 injured, according to the AP, we suspect these numbers are sadly just the start.
Volodymyr Porodko, deputy head of the Ukrainian Security Service, said weapons and ammunition have been stolen from the Ukrainian Security Service department in Ivano-Frankivsk.
“A total of 268 service pistols, two rifles, three assault rifles, 92 grenades, and some 15,000 cartridges were seized in the Ukrainian Security Service department in Ivano-Frankivsk,” he said while meeting with foreign ambassadors in the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday.
Russia is starting to comment:
Extremists are to blame for the events happening in Ukraine, however opposition forces, which refused the compromise, and Western countries, which interfered in the domestic affairs of Ukraine, bare some responsibility as well, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
“Of course, the blame is on extremists, who tried all these weeks and all these months to bring the situation to such forceful scenario but considerable share of responsibility is also on opposition activists, who refused compromise, gave the authorities demands outside the legal frame and in the end turned out to be incapable to fulfill what has been agreed,” Lavrov said at a news conference following a meeting with his Kuwaiti counterpart.
Ukraine CDS spiked to 4 year highs…