MOSCOW — With a referendum on secession looming in Crimea, Russia massed troops and armored vehicles in at least three regions along Ukraine’s eastern border on Thursday, alarming the interim Ukraine government about a possible invasion and significantly escalating tensions in the crisis between the Kremlin and the West.
The announcement of the troop buildup by Russia’s Defense Ministry was met with an unusually sharp rebuke from Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who warned that the Russian government must abandon what she called the politics of the 19th and 20th centuries or face diplomatic and economic retaliation from a united Europe.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if Russia continues on its course of the past weeks, it will not only be a catastrophe for Ukraine,” she said in a speech to the German Parliament. “We, also as neighbors of Russia, would not only see it as a threat. And it would not only change the European Union’s relationship with Russia. No, this would also cause massive damage to Russia, economically and politically.”
Ms. Merkel’s words reflected the rapid evolution of the Ukraine crisis from a regional conflict to a full-blown East-West confrontation that threatens a deep rupture in relations between Moscow and an increasingly unified European Union and the United States. That a leader of Germany, which has traditionally sought to bridge the East-West divide, should speak so forcefully was a further indication of the seriousness and depth of the potential breach.
Asked about Russia’s military moves, a senior State Department official said, “We’re very concerned.”
“It certainly has created an environment of intimidation,” said the official, who cannot be identified under the agency’s protocol for briefing reporters. “It certainly is destabilizing.” Mr. Kerry plans to ask for an explanation of the military moves when he meets with Mr. Lavrov, the official said. Mr. Kerry said in testimony on Thursday that further sanctions would be announced Monday if the referendum went forward on Sunday. “There will be costs if the referendum goes forward,” the official said. If Russia escalates the crisis further, those costs will be increased, the official added.
Until Thursday, the Russian military actions had been largely confined to asserting control over the Crimean peninsula, the largely Russian-populated area in southern Ukraine that took steps a week ago to secede and join Russia after the ouster of the pro-Kremlin government in Ukraine last month. A Crimean referendum, which Ukraine, the United States and the European Union have called illegal, is set to ratify that decision on Sunday.
But the buildup on Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia signaled possible further moves by the Kremlin to reassert authority by force over territory, also heavily populated by Russians, forfeited in the Soviet Union breakup two decades ago.
Underscoring the potential gravity of the troop movements, Russia’s senior commander, Valery V. Gerasimov, spoke by telephone with his NATO counterpart, Gen. Knud Bartles of Denmark, the news agency Interfax reported, citing a defense source. The details of the conversation were not disclosed.
In a further sign of a military buildup, Russian news agencies said the Defense Ministry had ordered six Sukhoi-27 fighter jets and three transport planes to Belarus, a Russian ally, to fend off what the Belarus president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, called a potential NATO threat. The Belarus deployment came after NATO sent 12 F-16 fighters to Poland last week.
The operations confirmed, at least in part, assertions by Ukrainian leaders on Wednesday that Russia was massing forces. Amateur photographs appeared to show columns of armored vehicles and trucks in a border village called Lopan, only 30 miles from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. One statement announced that another 1,500 paratroopers from Ivanovo, east of Moscow, had parachuted onto a military base in Rostov, not far from the Ukrainian cities Donetsk and Luhansk.
Donetsk in particular has been a flash point of tensions over the past few weeks, with competing demonstrations by pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine supporters erupting in violence. On Thursday night, the first death was reported, as several dozen supporters of the interim government in Kiev were attacked by opponents during a rally on a central Donetsk square.
Full article: Russian Troops Mass at Border With Ukraine (NY Times)