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PUTIN TALKS TOUGH BUT COOLS TENSIONS OVER UKRAINE

Wednesday, 05 March 2014 06:22 Published in National News

MOSCOW (AP) — Stepping back from the brink of war, Vladimir Putin talked tough but cooled tensions in the Ukraine crisis Tuesday, saying Russia has no intention "to fight the Ukrainian people" but reserves the right to use force.

As the Russian president held court in his personal residence, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kiev's fledgling government and urged Putin to stand down.

"It is not appropriate to invade a country, and at the end of a barrel of a gun dictate what you are trying to achieve," Kerry said. "That is not 21st-century, G-8, major nation behavior."

Although nerves remained on edge in the Crimean Peninsula, with Russian troops firing warning shots to ward off Ukrainian soldiers, global markets jumped higher on tentative signals that the Kremlin was not seeking to escalate the conflict. Kerry brought moral support and a $1 billion aid package to a Ukraine fighting to fend off bankruptcy.

Lounging in an arm-chair before Russian tricolor flags, Putin made his first public comments since the Ukrainian president fled a week and a half ago. It was a signature Putin performance, filled with earthy language, macho swagger and sarcastic jibes, accusing the West of promoting an "unconstitutional coup" in Ukraine. At one point he compared the U.S. role to an experiment with "lab rats."

But the overall message appeared to be one of de-escalation. "It seems to me (Ukraine) is gradually stabilizing," Putin said. "We have no enemies in Ukraine. Ukraine is a friendly state."

Still, he tempered those comments by warning that Russia was willing to use "all means at our disposal" to protect ethnic Russians in the country.

Significantly, Russia agreed to a NATO request to hold a special meeting to discuss Ukraine on Wednesday in Brussels, opening up a possible diplomatic channel in a conflict that still holds monumental hazards and uncertainties. At the same time, the U.S. and 14 other nations formed a military observer mission to monitor the tense Crimea region, and the team was headed there in 24 hours.

While the threat of military confrontation retreated somewhat, both sides ramped up economic feuding. Russia hit its nearly broke neighbor with a termination of discounts on natural gas, while the U.S. announced a $1 billion aid package in energy subsidies to Ukraine.

"We are going to do our best. We are going to try very hard," Kerry said upon arriving in Kiev. "We hope Russia will respect the election that you are going to have."

Kerry also made a pointed distinction between the Ukrainian government and Putin's.

"The contrast really could not be clearer: determined Ukrainians demonstrating strength through unity, and the Russian government out of excuses, hiding its hand behind falsehoods, intimidation and provocations. In the hearts of Ukrainians and the eyes of the world, there is nothing strong about what Russia is doing."

The penalties proposed against Russia, he added, are "not something we are seeking to do. It is something Russia is pushing us to do."

World markets, which slumped the previous day, clawed back a large chunk of their losses on signs that Russia was backpedaling. Gold, the Japanese yen and U.S. treasuries — all seen as safe havens — returned some of their gains. Russia's RTS index, which fell 12 percent on Monday, rose 6.2 percent Tuesday. In the U.S., the Dow Jones industrial average closed up 1.4 percent.

"Confidence in equity markets has been restored as the standoff between Ukraine and Russia is no longer on red alert," said David Madden, market analyst at IG.

Russia took over the strategic Crimean Peninsula on Saturday, placing its troops around its ferry, military bases and border posts. Two Ukrainian warships remained anchored in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, blocked from leaving by Russian ships.

"Those unknown people without insignia who have seized administrative buildings and airports ... what we are seeing is a kind of velvet invasion," said Russian military analyst Alexander Golts.

The territory's enduring volatility was put in stark relief Tuesday morning: Russian troops, who had taken control of the Belbek air base, fired warning shots into the air as some 300 Ukrainian soldiers, who previously manned the airfield, demanded their jobs back.

As the Ukrainians marched unarmed toward the base, about a dozen Russian soldiers told them not to approach, then fired several shots into the air and said they would shoot the Ukrainians if they continued toward them.

The Ukrainian troops vowed to hold whatever ground they had left on the Belbek base.

"We are worried, but we will not give up our base," said Capt. Nikolai Syomko, an air force radio electrician holding an AK-47.

Amid the tensions, the Russian military test-fired a Topol intercontinental ballistic missile. Fired from a launch pad in southern Russia, it hit a designated target on a range leased by Russia from Kazakhstan.

The new Ukrainian leadership in Kiev, which Putin does not recognize, has accused Moscow of a military invasion in Crimea, which the Russian leader denied.

Ukraine's prime minister expressed hope that a negotiated solution could be found. Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a news conference that both governments were gradually beginning to talk again.

"We hope that Russia will understand its responsibility in destabilizing the security situation in Europe, that Russia will realize that Ukraine is an independent state and that Russian troops will leave the territory of Ukraine," he said.

In his hour-long meeting with reporters, Putin said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, while insisting its residents have the right to determine the region's status in a referendum later this month. Tensions "have been settled," he declared.

He said massive military maneuvers Russia has conducted involving 150,000 troops near Ukraine's border were previously planned and unrelated to the current situation in Ukraine. Russia announced that Putin had ordered the troops back to their bases.

Putin hammered away at his message that the West was to blame for Ukraine's turmoil, saying its actions were driving Ukraine into anarchy. He warned that any sanctions the United States and European Union place on Russia will backfire.

American threats of punitive measures are "failure to enforce its will and its vision of the right and wrong side of history," Russia's Foreign Ministry said — a swipe at President Barack Obama's statement a day earlier that Russia was "on the wrong side of history."

In Washington, Obama shot back. Moves to punish Putin put the U.S. on "the side of history that, I think, more and more people around the world deeply believe in, the principle that a sovereign people, an independent people, are able to make their own decisions about their own lives."

"And, you know, Mr. Putin can throw a lot of words out there, but the facts on the ground indicate that right now he is not abiding by that principle," Obama said.

The EU was to hold an emergency summit Thursday on whether to impose sanctions.

Moscow has insisted that the Russian military deployment in Crimea has remained within the limits set by a bilateral agreement concerning Russia's Black Sea Fleet military base there. At the United Nations, Russia's ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, said Russia was entitled to deploy up to 25,000 troops in Crimea under that agreement.

Putin also asserted that Ukraine's 22,000-strong force in Crimea had dissolved and its arsenals had fallen under the control of the local government. He didn't explain if that meant the Ukrainian soldiers had just left their posts or if they had switched allegiance from Kiev to the local pro-Russian government.

Putin accused the West of using fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych's decision in November to ditch a pact with the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia to fan the protests that drove him from power and plunged Ukraine into turmoil.

"I have told them a thousand times 'Why are you splitting the country?'" he said.

While he said he still considers Yanukovych to be Ukraine's legitimate president, he acknowledged that the fallen leader has no political future — and said Russia gave him shelter only to save his life. Ukraine's new government wants to put Yanukovych on trial for the deaths of over 80 people during protests last month in Kiev.

Putin had withering words for Yanukovych, with whom he has never been close.

Asked if he harbors any sympathy for the fugitive president, Putin replied that he has "quite opposite feelings."

___

ANALYSTS: RUSSIA UNLIKELY TO PULL BACK IN CRIMEA

Wednesday, 05 March 2014 06:21 Published in National News

WASHINGTON (AP) — Russia is unlikely to pull back its military forces in Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, analysts and former Obama administration officials say, forcing the United States and Europe into a more limited strategy of trying to prevent President Vladimir Putin from making advances elsewhere in the former Soviet republic.

It's an unsettling scenario for President Barack Obama, who is under pressure to show he has leverage over Putin in a deepening conflict between East and West. The threat of economic sanctions, along with a series of modest measures that include canceling trade talks with Moscow and suspending plans to attend an international summit in Russia, have so far done little to persuade the Russian leader to pull his forces back from Crimea.

"I'm not optimistic they're going to leave," said Michael McFaul, who served as Obama's ambassador to Russia until just last week.

McFaul, in an interview on MSNBC, said he was expressing his personal view, not speaking on behalf of the administration. White House officials have condemned Russia's military maneuvers in Crimea as a violation of international law and insist they would oppose any long-term occupation of the region.

"We would not find that to be acceptable," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday.

A senior administration official said it would be up to Ukraine's central government to decide the future of Crimea, where nearly 60 percent of the population identify themselves as Russians. The official said the U.S. would oppose any Russian efforts to formally annex Crimea or recognize its independence, steps that would echo Moscow's moves during its 2008 conflict with Georgia, another former Soviet republic.

Ukraine is in the midst of a monthslong political crisis sparked by ousted President Viktor Yanukovych's rejection of a partnership agreement with the European Union in favor of historical ties with Moscow. After Yanukovych fled Ukraine last week, Russian forces quickly moved into Crimea, despite Obama's warnings that there would be costs for violating Ukraine's territorial integrity.

Putin's fast and defiant dismissal of Obama's threats sparked a new round of criticism from the White House's Republican opponents. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., accused Obama of having "a feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America's strength anymore."

Obama and his advisers insist they still have an array of options at their disposal, the most stringent being economic sanctions that could go into effect as early as this week. The European Union appears to be treading more cautiously, but the bloc's 28 leaders are set to decide on initial sanctions at an emergency meeting in Brussels on Thursday.

But even with tough economic penalties, some regional analysts say it may already be too late to reverse course in Crimea.

"The idea that there's a contest over Crimea is a little silly," said Matthew Rojansky, a Russia analyst at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington. "It's in Russian hands and it was always on the verge of being in Russian hands."

Rojansky said the most pressing concern for the U.S. is instead to keep Putin from pushing into Russian-friendly areas of eastern Ukraine, where U.S. officials are warily eyeing ethnic skirmishes. Putin on Tuesday said he saw no reason for Russia to intervene there at the moment but added that he reserved the right to take that step if Russian speakers in the region were in danger.

The Crimean peninsula is separated from the rest of Ukraine by geography, history and politics. It only became part of Ukraine in 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave the peninsula to the republic where he began his political career, a transfer that hardly mattered until the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 and Crimea ended up in an independent Ukraine.

Crimea's port city of Sevastopol is also home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet and its thousands of naval personnel. Yanukovych, the ousted Ukrainian president, extended the fleet's lease until 2042, but Russia fears that Ukraine's temporary pro-Western government could evict it.

The U.S. is not calling for a full Russian withdrawal from Crimea, the Obama administration official said, but does want Moscow's forces to return to their normal operating position at their base, where they have an agreement with Ukraine to keep up to 11,000 troops. The official wasn't authorized to discuss the situation by name and would speak only on condition of anonymity.

The situation in Crimea has drawn comparisons to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway territories of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Russia has continued to maintain a military presence in both, violating a cease-fire that ended its 2008 military conflict with Georgia and ignoring repeated condemnations from the U.S. and Europe.

Barry Pavel, who worked on the White House National Security Council under both Obama and President George W. Bush, said reasserting control of Crimea may be even more important to Russia than the Georgian territories.

"Russian nationalists consider this to be practically Russian territory," said Pavel, who now serves as vice president of the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. "The chances of Russian forces ever leaving where they are are very low."

The long-term ramifications of Russia's remaining in Crimea are unclear, particularly as the rest of Ukraine works through its next steps following Yanukovych's ouster. But Heather Conley, a Europe analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it would be a dangerous proposition for the U.S. and Europe to allow Putin to view gains in Crimea as an opportunity to launch incursions elsewhere in the region.

"Then this does start looking like appeasement," she said. "If you believe that more is in the offing, you have to take a stand now."

DIPLOMATIC EXIT? UKRAINE PLAYERS CONVERGE ON PARIS

Wednesday, 05 March 2014 06:20 Published in National News

PARIS (AP) — Top diplomats from the West and Russia trying to find an end to the crisis in Ukraine are gathering in Paris on Wednesday as tensions simmered over the Russian military takeover of the strategic Crimean Peninsula.

A team of international observers headed to Crimea, Europe debated the size of its aid package to the nearly bankrupt Ukraine, and NATO prepared to take up the issue directly with Russia in an extraordinary meeting of the military alliance originally created as a counter to the Soviet Union.

The envoys from Russia, Ukraine, the U.S., Britain and France are not necessarily all at the same table, but French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said everyone has been working non-stop for a diplomatic solution.

"We have a principle of firmness but at the same time of searching for dialogue," Fabius said as he stood alongside his Ukrainian counterpart, making his first trip abroad in the new post.

Ukraine has accused Russia of a military invasion after pro-Russian troops took over Crimea on Saturday, placing forces around its ferry, military bases and border posts. Moscow does not recognize the new Ukrainian leadership in Kiev that ousted the pro-Russian president.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking in Spain ahead of meetings planned with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris, warned against Western support of what Moscow views as a coup. If you did that, he said, it would encourage government takeovers elsewhere.

"If we indulge those who are trying to rule our great, kind historic neighbor, we must understand that a bad example is infectious," Lavrov said.

Wednesday's gathering, originally scheduled to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis, came after Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to step back from the brink of war, but the crisis is far from resolved.

"This is my first trip to such an important venue where the Ukrainian future, maybe the future of the region, will be decided," Andriy Deshchytsia, Ukraine's foreign minister, said of the meetings in Paris. "We want to keep neighborly relations with the Russian people. We want to settle this peacefully."

On the flight from Kiev to Paris, Deshchytsia told reporters that Ukraine was unlikely to go to war to prevent Russia from annexing Crimea but said doing so wouldn't be necessary because Russia would be unwilling to suffer the resulting economic penalties and diplomatic isolation.

Ukraine is near bankruptcy, and the European Union's executive arm was supposed to decide Wednesday on a package of support measures to add to the $1 billion energy subsidy package aid promised by the U.S. Russian troops remain.

Russia has suggested that it will meet any sanctions imposed by Western governments with a tough response, and President Putin warned in a press conference on Tuesday that those measures could incur serious "mutual damage."

On Wednesday, members of Russia's upper house of parliament told state news agency RIA Novosti that they had introduced a bill that would freeze the assets of European and American companies working in Russia in reaction to any sanctions.

___

Associated Press writers Laura Mills in Moscow, Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, and Lara Jakes and Greg Keller in Paris, and Juergen Baetz in Brussels contributed.

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