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NATO warns of Russian threat to Moldova

A Pro-Russian protester holds a placard reading "Referendum!" during a rally in the center of the Ukrainian city of Odessa on March 23, 2014.(AFP PHOTO/ ALEXEY KRAVTSOV)

BRUSSELS/FEDOSIYA: NATO’s top military commander said Sunday Russia had built up a “very sizable” force on its border with Ukraine and Moscow may have a region in another ex-Soviet Republic, Moldova, in its sights after annexing Crimea.

Russia was acting more like an adversary than a partner, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove said, and the 28-nation alliance should rethink the positioning and readiness of its forces in eastern Europe.

Russian troops, using armored vehicles, automatic weapons and stun grenades, seized some of the last military facilities under Ukrainian control Saturday in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russian President Vladimir Putin formally annexed the day before.

Breedlove was one of several Western officials and politicians to warn Sunday that Russia may not stop there in a crisis that has taken East-West relations lurching back toward the Cold War since pro-Western protests in Ukraine ousted Moscow-allied President Viktor Yanukovich last month.

“The [Russian] force that is at the Ukrainian border now to the east is very, very sizable and very, very ready,” the NATO commander told an event held by the German Marshall Fund think tank.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken said the buildup might just be aimed at intimidating Ukraine’s new pro-Western leaders but that Russia could invade the country’s mainly Russian-speaking east. “It’s possible that they are preparing to move in,” he told CNN.

Russia said it was complying with international agreements and had no plans to invade. It has called the soldiers who took over Ukrainian bases in Crimea “self-defense forces.”

Ukrainian marine standards were still flying Sunday alongside the Russian flag at the Crimean base of Ukraine’s top military unit in Fedosiya, but the Ukrainian troops were getting ready to leave after the Russian military takeover

“Our only issue is that we want to leave this place with honor, weapons and vehicles,” one Ukrainian soldier said.

Blinken said Washington was considering all requests for military assistance from the government in Kiev, but that it would be unlikely to prevent an invasion of Ukraine, which is not part of NATO. Breedlove said the military alliance needed to think about its eastern members, particularly the former Soviet Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

“We need to think about our allies, the positioning of our forces in the alliance and the readiness of those forces ... such that we can be there to defend against it if required, especially in the Baltics and other places,” Breedlove said.

Breedlove said NATO was very concerned about the threat to Transdniestria, which declared independence from Moldova in 1990 but has not been recognized by any United Nations member state. About 30 percent of its half million population is ethnic Russian, which is the mother tongue of an overall majority.

Russia has 440 peacekeepers in Transdniestria plus other soldiers guarding Soviet-era arms stocks.

Russia launched a new military exercise, involving 8,500 artillery men, near Ukraine’s eastern border 10 days ago.

“There is absolutely sufficient [Russian] force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transdniestria if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome,” Breedlove said.

The speaker of Transdniestria’s parliament has urged Russia to incorporate the region, which lies to the west of Ukraine. The new leaders in Kiev have said Moscow could seek to link up pro-Russian regions in Moldova and Georgia to Ukraine’s East in a destabilizing southern corridor with Crimea in the middle.

Moscow’s ambassador to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, said Russia did not have “expansionist views.” Asked to give a commitment that Russian troops would not move into Ukrainian territory outside Crimea, he told Britain’s BBC. “There is no intention of the Russian Federation to do anything like that.”

U.S. Senator John McCain, a Republican foreign policy specialist, told the same BBC show that Putin’s actions in Ukraine were akin to those of Adolf Hitler in 1930s Germany.

“I think he [Putin] is calculating how much he can get away with, just as Adolf Hitler calculated how much he could get away with in the 1930s,” McCain said.

Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier underscored the huge potential repercussions of Russia’s bid to redraw national borders in Europe.

“I’m very worried the unlawful attempt to alter recognized borders in our European neighborhood, 25 years after the end of the Cold War, will open Pandora’s Box,” he said.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, a close ally of Russia, accepted Sunday that Crimea was now “de facto” a part of Russia, but said the annexation set a “bad precedent.”

Western sanctions lost some of their sting Sunday when Russia’s SMP bank, whose main shareholders were targeted by U.S. sanctions, said Visa Inc. and MasterCard Inc. had resumed payment services for its clients.

The bank said it was glad the two biggest international payments systems had listened to its arguments to reverse Friday’s suspension of services as it was wrong to target the bank, which was not itself subject to any sanctions.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 24, 2014, on page 11.

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Summary

NATO's top military commander said Sunday Russia had built up a "very sizable" force on its border with Ukraine and Moscow may have a region in another ex-Soviet Republic, Moldova, in its sights after annexing Crimea.

Russia was acting more like an adversary than a partner, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove said, and the 28-nation alliance should rethink the positioning and readiness of its forces in eastern Europe.

It has called the soldiers who took over Ukrainian bases in Crimea "self-defense forces".

Ukrainian marine standards were still flying Sunday alongside the Russian flag at the Crimean base of Ukraine's top military unit in Fedosiya, but the Ukrainian troops were getting ready to leave after the Russian military takeover

Russia has 440 peacekeepers in Transdniestria plus other soldiers guarding Soviet-era arms stocks.

Russia launched a new military exercise, involving 8,500 artillery men, near Ukraine's eastern border 10 days ago.


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