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Wednesday, 19 March 2014 02:58

Crimean forces storm Ukrainian navy HQ

   SEVASTOPOL, Crimea (AP) — Crimea's self-defense forces on Wednesday stormed the Ukrainian navy base in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol a day after Russia signed a treaty with local authorities to annex the region.
   An Associated Press photographer witnessed several hundred self-defense forces force their way onto the headquarters' premises and raise the Russian flag on the square by the headquarters.
   Ukrainian servicemen were standing guard by the main building. Crimean self-defense forces are not armed and seemed to be waiting for the Ukrainian army's decision whether to let them in.
   Russia on Tuesday signed a treaty to incorporate Crimea into its territory following a referendum in which residents of Ukraine's region overwhelmingly backed the move. Ukraine and the West consider the vote illegitimate.
   The United States and the European Union on Monday imposed sanctions on Russia, targeting Russian and Crimean officials with visa bans and asset freezes.
Published in National News
   MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday approved a draft bill for the annexation of Crimea, one of a flurry of steps to formally take over the Black Sea peninsula.
   Crimea on Sunday voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and seek to join Russia. The West and Ukraine described the referendum which was announced two weeks ago as illegitimate.
   The United States and the European Union on Monday announced asset freezes and other sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian officials involved in the Crimean crisis. President Barack Obama warned that more would come if Russia didn't stop interfering in Ukraine.
   Russian troops have been occupying the region for more than two weeks.
   The decree signed by Putin and posted on the official government website Tuesday morning is one of the steps which would formalize the annexation of Crimea. Russia, however, still has a room to back off. The treaty to annex Crimea has to be signed by leaders of Russia and Crimea leader and then ratified by the parliament.
   Putin is set to address both houses of the parliament at 3 p.m. Moscow time (1100 GMT) in a nationally televised speech where he is widely expected to stake Russia's claim on Crimea.
   Crimea had been part of Russia since the 18th century until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954. Both Russians and Crimea's majority ethnic Russian population see annexation as correcting a historic insult.
   Ukraine's turmoil, which began in November with a wave of protests against President Viktor Yanukovych and accelerated after he fled to Russia in late February, has become Europe's most severe security crisis in years.
Published in National News
   MOSCOW (AP) — Final results of the referendum in Crimea show that 97 percent of voters have supported leaving Ukraine to join Russia, the head of the referendum election commission said Monday.
   Mikhail Malyshev told a televised news conference that the final tally from Sunday's vote was 96.8 percent in favor of splitting from Ukraine. He also said that the commission has not registered a single complaint about the vote.
   The referendum was widely condemned by Western leaders who were planning to discuss economic sanctions to punish Russia on Monday. Ukraine's new government in Kiev called the referendum a "circus" directed at gunpoint by Moscow.
   But Valery Ryazantsev, head of Russia's observer mission in Crimea and a lawmaker from the upper house of the Russian parliament, said Monday that the results are beyond dispute. He told the Interfax news agency that there are "absolutely no reasons to consider the vote results illegitimate."
   Senior officials in Moscow were discussing Crimea's annexation as a fait accompli. Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Shatalov said the region could receive tax breaks.
   The vote came less than three months after Ukraine's then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, shelved plans to upgrade economic ties with the European Union and instead accept a Russian offer of loans and reduced energy prices. That triggered demonstrations by pro-Western Ukrainians which turned violent, eventually forcing Yanukovych to flee.
   The Crimean peninsula has been controlled for two weeks now by troops under apparent Russian command.
   Russia raised the stakes Saturday when its forces, backed by helicopter gunships and armored vehicles, took control of the Ukrainian village of Strilkove and a key natural gas distribution plant nearby — the first Russian military move into Ukraine beyond the Crimean peninsula of 2 million people.
   The Russian forces later withdrew from the village but kept control of the gas plant. On Sunday, Ukrainian soldiers were digging trenches and erecting barricades between the village and the gas plant.
   The Crimean parliament planned to meet Monday to formally ask Moscow to be annexed, and Crimean lawmakers were to fly to Moscow later in the day for talks, Crimea's prime minister said on Twitter.
Published in National News

WASHINGTON (AP) — Underlying talk about taking harsh punitive measures against Russia for its military incursion into Ukraine are economic complications and worries that sanctions levied against Moscow could backfire on the U.S. and Europe.

Heavier U.S. and European Union sanctions could sting Russia's already slow-growing economy and hurt its financial sector. But Moscow could retaliate and seize American and other foreign assets or cut exports of natural gas to Europe, which is heavily dependent on Russia for energy.

Declaring his determination not to let the Kremlin carve up Ukraine, President Barack Obama on Thursday slapped new visa restrictions on Russian and other opponents of Ukraine's government in Kiev and authorized wider financial penalties against those involved in the military intervention or in stealing state assets. Obama emphasized his resolve in an hourlong telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, affirming his contention that Russia's actions violate Ukraine's sovereignty.

On Capitol Hill, both chambers of Congress looked to advance legislation imposing hard-hitting sanctions on Russia.

Obama hailed U.S. cooperation with the European Union, which on Thursday suspended talks with Putin's government on a wide-ranging economic agreement and on granting Russian citizens visa-free travel within the 28-nation bloc. But Europe's presidents and prime ministers remain divided on taking more drastic steps such as freezing assets and issuing travel bans on Russian officials.

European hesitancy reflected the reality that targeting influential Russian businessmen or major Russian companies would also harm Europe's economic interests. U.S. trade with Russia is less than one-tenth of Europe's.

Russian investors hold assets worth billions in European banks, particularly in Britain which is highly protective of its financial sector, and major exporters such as Germany and the Netherlands have far more at stake than the United States in Russia's consumer economy.

Showing greater caution than Obama on sanctions, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said European penalties against Russia depend "on how the diplomatic process progresses." EU President Herman Van Rompuy said travel bans, asset freezes and the cancellation of an EU-Russia summit could still come. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk acknowledged "no enthusiasm" in Europe for economic sanctions.

In some ways, the debate over sanctions echoes the Cold War doctrine of military strategy in which if two opponents fired off nuclear weapons, both sides would be annihilated.

"There is a kind of mutually assured destruction relationship here," said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and analyst at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. "Russia could say, 'Well, we're going to cut off your gas and you guys can now scramble and buy extra gas and pay big prices.'

"It would hurt the Europeans, but it also would cut off the biggest source of cash that flows into Russia today," he said referring to oil and gas sales that account for about 60 percent of Russia's exports and half of its government revenue. "So the Russians may threaten some things, but they also have to consider that if they do that what it would do to the Russian economy."

The State Department sought to allay fears that Europe might find itself short on Russian gas.

"We understand that European gas inventories are well-above normal levels, due to a milder than usual winter, and could replace a loss of Russian exports for several months, if necessary," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "Naturally, we take the energy security of our friends very seriously."

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, saw an opening for U.S. gas producers. He called on Obama to fast-track approval of U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas, claiming the Energy Department has a slow approval process that amounts to a de facto ban on American natural gas exports.

"We should not force our allies to remain dependent on Putin for their energy needs," Boehner said.

Ariel Cohen, an expert on Russian and Eurasian affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said he doesn't know if the Europeans would be willing to impose tough sanctions, particularly against Russia's banking and financial systems. Even if the Europeans don't, the U.S. needs to take the lead or risk allowing Russia to alter current world order, he said.

"Either we take a lead or the international system goes back to the chaos and high-risk levels that existed before World War I and between World War I and World War II," he said. "This is very serious. I cannot emphasize that enough. People who talk about 'Oh, we won't get cheap gas from Russia' or 'The Russians will get angry' — they do not look at it beyond the current geopolitical and international order."

If Russia grabs Crimea, Iran would be less willing to give up an ability to develop nuclear arms. "The message to Iran would be: If you have nuclear weapons you will not be attacked, your regime will be intact. If you don't have nuclear weapons, your regime can be toppled and pieces of your territory can be taken away."

As a result of its move into Ukraine, Cohen said Russia already has lost billions in its stock market drop and devaluation of the Russian ruble. It also stands to lose from a decline in tourism and future energy sales if European nations decide it's time to reduce their dependence on Russian gas and buy it from North Africa, Qatar, Nigeria and the U.S.

For the U.S., the worst that can happen is that Russia will partially seize assets of companies like Coca-Cola, Boeing or Pepsi, he said. But that also would make Russia's investment climate more difficult than it already is because of arbitrary rules, corruption and hard to understand taxation.

"It's not clear how nasty Russian retaliation might be, but the main thing is not punishment," Cohen said. "The main thing for both sides is to have sanity prevail — to get into a negotiating process. We need to walk this baby back, put it in a box and put it away."

Published in National News
   WASHINGTON (AP) - The U.S. and its allies are weighing sanctions on Moscow and whether to bolster defenses in Europe in response to Russia's military advances on Ukraine.
   Secretary of State John Kerry is going this week to Ukraine's capital. Kerry says world leaders "are prepared to go to the hilt in order to isolate Russia."
   Missile defense systems and troop levels in Europe have again become urgent questions in Washington and beyond. It's a renewed reality that may force President Barack Obama's administration to give up its intended foreign policy shift to Asia.
   There appears to be little if any taste in the West for a direct military response to Russia's provocation. Economic sanctions, visa bans, freezing of Russian assets, and trade and investment penalties are under consideration.
Published in National News
By TIM SULLIVAN and DAVID McHUGH Associated Press
 
PEREVALNE, Ukraine (AP) - Warning that it was "on the brink of disaster," Ukraine put its military on high alert Sunday and appealed for international help to avoid what it feared was the possibility of a wider invasion by Russia.
 
Outrage over Russia's military moves mounted in world capitals, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry calling on President Vladimir Putin to pull back from "an incredible act of aggression."
 
A day after Russia captured the Crimean peninsula without firing a shot, fears grew in the Ukrainian capital and beyond that Russia might seek to expand its control by seizing other parts of eastern Ukraine. A senior U.S. official said Washington now believes that Russia has complete operational control of Crimea, a pro-Russian area of the country, and has more than 6,000 air, naval and ground forces in the region.
 
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said there was no reason for Russia to invade Ukraine and warned that "we are on the brink of disaster."
 
"We believe that our western partners and the entire global community will support the territorial integrity and unity of Ukraine," he said Sunday in Kiev.
 
World leaders rushed to try to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
 
NATO held an emergency meeting in Brussels, Britain's foreign minister flew to Kiev to support its new government and Kerry was to travel to Ukraine Tuesday. The U.S., France and Britain debated the possibility of boycotting the next Group of Eight economic summit, to be held in June in Sochi, the host of Russia's successful Winter Olympics.
 
In Kiev, Moscow and other cities, thousands of protesters took to the streets to either decry the Russian occupation or celebrate Crimea's return to its former ruler.
 
"Support us, America!" a handful of protesters chanted outside the U.S. Embassy in Kiev. One young girl held up a placard reading: "No Russian aggression!"
 
"Russia! Russia!" the crowd chanted in Moscow.
 
Kerry, interviewed Sunday on U.S. television news shows, talked about boycotting the G-8 summit, as well as possible visa bans, asset freezes and trade and investment penalties against Russia. Kerry said all the foreign ministers he had talked to were prepared "to go to the hilt" to isolate Russia.
 
NATO issued a statement saying it "condemns Russia's military escalation in Crimea" and demanding that Russia respect its obligations under the U.N. charter. Ukraine is not a NATO member, meaning the U.S. and Europe are not obligated to come to its defense, but the country has taken part in some alliance exercises.
 
"We are on a very dangerous track of increasing tensions," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. "(But) it is still possible to turn around. A new division of Europe can still be prevented."
 
So far, however, Ukraine's new government and other countries have been powerless to counter Russia's tactics. Armed men in uniforms without insignia have moved freely about Crimea for days, occupying airports, smashing equipment at an air base and besieging a Ukrainian infantry base.
 
Putin has defied calls from the West to pull back his troops, insisting that Russia has a right to protect its interests and those of Russian-speakers in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine. His confidence is matched by the knowledge that Ukraine's 46 million people have divided loyalties. While much of western Ukraine wants closer ties with the 28-nation European Union, its eastern and southern regions like Crimea look to Russia for support.
 
Russia has long wanted to reclaim the lush Crimean Peninsula, part of its territory until 1954. Russia's Black Sea Fleet pays Ukraine millions every year to be stationed at the Crimean port of Sevastopol and nearly 60 percent of Crimea's residents identify themselves as Russian.
 
During a phone conversation Sunday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin "directed her attention to the unrelenting threat of violence from ultranationalist forces (in Ukraine) that endangered the life and legal interests of Russian citizens," according to a Kremlin statement.
 
The statement also said "the measures taken by Russia are fully adequate with regard to the current extraordinary situation."
 
Ukraine's new government came to power last week following months of pro-democracy protests against a pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and his decision to turn Ukraine toward Russia instead of the EU. Yanukovych fled to Russia after more than 80 people were killed in the protests. He insists he's still president.
 
Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, put Ukraine's armed forces on alert, calling up reserves for training and stepping up security at nuclear power plants, airports and other strategic locations. However, no overt military actions by Ukraine were seen.
 
Turchynov also moved to consolidate the new government's authority in eastern Ukraine, appointing 18 new regional governors and enlisting the support of the wealthy businessmen known as oligarchs. The new appointees included two oligarchs in the eastern cities of Dneprotrovsk and Donetsk, as big business and the new Ukrainian government united against Russia.
 
Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, urged business, ordinary people and the government to join together, saying Sunday that the use of force and "illegal action from outside" were "impermissible."
 
"I call upon all my fellow citizens to unity for the sake of a whole and undivided Ukraine ... Our strength is in the solidarity of business, government and society," said Akhmetov, whose SCM Group has 300,000 employees and interests in steel, coal and mining.
 
Faced with the threat from Russia, "the national elite has consolidated around the new government," political analyst Vadim Karasyov of the Institute for Global Strategies told The Associated Press. "The biggest businessmen and oligarchs have agreed to head key regions. This is a very good sign for the new government."
 
Russian troops, meanwhile, pulled up to the Ukrainian military base at Perevalne on the Crimean Peninsula in a convoy Sunday that included at least 13 trucks and four armored vehicles with mounted machine guns. The trucks carried 30 soldiers each and had Russian license plates.
 
In response, a dozen Ukrainian soldiers, some with clips in their rifles, placed a tank at the base's gate, leaving the two sides in a tense standoff. It appeared to be the first known case of outmatched Ukrainians standing up to Russian military might.
 
Unidentified soldiers were also seen cutting power to the headquarters of the Ukrainian Naval forces in Crimea — whose own commander defected later Sunday and pledged his allegiance to "the people of Crimea."
 
In Kiev, a Ukrainian security official said the head of the Ukrainian Navy — Adm. Denis Berezovsky — had been dismissed and faces a treason investigation after declaring his allegiance to the pro-Russian government of the Crimea region and offering no resistance to the Russian troops.
 
The speaker of Crimea's legislature, Vladimir Konstantinov, was quoted as saying local authorities do not recognize the new government in Kiev. He said a planned referendum on March 30 would ask voters about the region's future status.
 
A convoy of hundreds of Russian troops was also seen heading toward Simferopol, the regional capital of Crimea. Armed men in military uniforms without markings strolled around Simferopol's central plaza, Lenin Square, outside its Council of Ministers building.
 
"It is very important that we all do everything we can to calm tensions," said British Foreign Minister William Hague, who flew to Kiev on Sunday.
 
He said he has urged Russian officials to "speak directly to the Ukrainians" but so far they had not.
 
President Barack Obama talked with Putin by telephone for 90 minutes Saturday and expressed his "deep concern" about "Russia's clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty." Obama warned that Russia's "continued violation of international law will lead to greater political and economic isolation."
 
In Moscow, at least 10,000 people bearing Russian flags marched freely through the city Sunday, while a few dozen demonstrating on Red Square against the invasion of Ukraine were quickly detained by Russian riot police.
 
"We understand that the West wants to attack us and seize this territory. It (the West) is dangerous to us," said Victor Sidelin, a Moscow resident at the march.
 
——————
 
McHugh reported from Kiev, Ukraine. AP writers Greg Keller in Paris, Laura Mills and Lynn Berry in Moscow, Tom Strong in Washington, Tim Sullivan in Crimea, Greg Katz in London and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this story.
Published in National News
Friday, 28 February 2014 01:17

Ukraine: Russian military blocking airport

   SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine's interior minister says the Russian military are blocking an airport in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol in Crimea near the Russian naval base.
   Arsen Avakov said in a Facebook post that the Belbek international airport in Sevastopol is blocked by military units of the Russian navy. Avakov called the blockade "military invasion and occupation."
   Separately, dozens of armed men in military uniforms without markings were patrolling the airport in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea on Friday as tensions in the country's Russian-speaking southeast escalated. It was not immediately clear who they were.
Published in National News
Friday, 21 February 2014 01:55

Ukraine presidency: crisis deal agreed

   KIEV, Ukraine (AP) - Ukraine's presidency says negotiations with opposition leaders, the European Union and Russia have produced an "agreement to settle the crisis," but released no details.
   A statement on the presidency's website says a document will be signed at noon local time (1000 GMT, 5 A.M. EST) Friday.
   However, Germany's Foreign Ministry says on Twitter that negotiators had taken a break "to continue talks later on."
   Street battles between protesters and police in Kiev have left more than 100 people dead this week, including some shot by snipers Thursday. The Health Ministry says nearly 600 people have been wounded and 369 hospitalized.
   A shaky peace reigned in the protest camps in downtown Kiev Friday morning. No visible police forces remained on the square, and volunteers walked freely to the protest camps to donate food and other packages.
 
Published in National News

SOCHI, Russia (AP) — T.J. Oshie scored four times in the shootout and got the winner in the eighth round, leading the United States past Russia 3-2 Saturday in the thrilling revival of an Olympic hockey rivalry.

Cam Fowler and Joe Pavelski scored in regulation for the Americans in the marquee game of the preliminary round. Jonathan Quick made 29 saves and stopped five attempts in the shootout.

International rules allow the same player to take multiple shots after the first three rounds of a shootout, and U.S. coach Dan Bylsma leaned on Oshie. The St. Louis Blues forward went 4 for 6 against Russian goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.

Captain Pavel Datsyuk scored two goals in regulation and another in the shootout. The fast-paced game was played in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin and an energized home crowd in Sochi.

Published in Sports
Friday, 07 February 2014 03:13

Obama Explains Putin's Tough Guy "Shtick"

   President Obama thinks Russian President Vladimir Putin's "shtick" is to try to look like a "tough guy."
   Putin, after all, has carefully crafted a no-nonsense public image as a rugged outdoorsman. He’s been photographed hunting, fishing and riding horses, all while bare-chested.
   Despite appearing standoffish in meetings with Obama, the U.S. president said his Russian counterpart has always treated him with "respect" and that "there's a surprising amount of humor" in their interactions.
   "He does have a public style where he likes to sit back and look a little bored during the course of joint interviews," Obama told NBC News as the network kicked of its Olympic coverage. "I think that's where some of these perceptions come up."
   "My sense is that's part of his shtick back home politically as wanting to look like the tough guy," he said. "U.S. politicians have a different style. We tend to smile once in a while."
 
Published in National News
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