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Russia And The West Rattle Sabers And Renew Sanctions

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Though Russian and Western officials repeatedly claim they don’t want a return to Cold War-era hostility, both sides have renewed sanctions and toughened their military posture in recent days.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday extended for an additional year his country’s ban on most food imports from the European Union, two days after the 28-nation Western bloc announced that its sanctions on Russia will be prolonged to the end of January 2016.

The tit-for-tat embargoes — which hurt the countries imposing them as well as those targeted — show the intractability of the conflict in Ukraine that prompted the measures last year.

The EU and the United States cut off Russian access to international financial institutions nearly a year ago and have blacklisted dozens of Kremlin officials and business kingpins seen as fomenting the violence in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 6,400 people.

The European and U.S. sanctions on Russia have been renewed as the Western allies try to pressure Putin to refrain from supporting separatist rebels in the neighboring country that, like Russia, was part of the Soviet Union before its 1991 breakup.

Putin claims the pro-Russia separatists are independently waging war against the Kiev government but Western satellite imagery and the confessions of captured Russian soldiers bolster Ukrainian leaders’ accusations that Moscow is orchestrating the rebellion.

“Russia is actively and massively fueling this conflict,” Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. forces in Europe, told the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Tuesday, according to excerpts of his briefing released Wednesday. Disputing Putin’s claim that any Russians in the Ukraine battle are there at their own volition, Hodges said “these are not volunteers or mercenaries; they are trained, equipped and uniformed active-duty Russian soldiers.”

Hodges’ briefing to the Vienna-based European security agency coincided with a meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany in Paris in an apparently unsuccessful attempt to rescue the Feb. 12 peace plan hammered out in the Belarus capital of Minsk but repeatedly violated in recent weeks.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that the four top diplomats committed their countries to ensuring that the Minsk accord doesn’t completely collapse. But he alluded to “powers who would like to destroy this process,” an apparent reference to the United States, which is not party to the informal negotiating forum known as the Normandy Four.

Urban combat and artillery exchanges ebbed after the Minsk agreement was signed four months ago by Ukraine’s warring factions and endorsed by Putin, who pledged to use his influence with the separatists to end the bloodshed. But the lull in heavy fighting was mostly due to harsh winter weather and the seas of mud that followed in early spring, as artillery exchanges escalated after the mud dried last month and tanks and armored vehicles could maneuver again.

European leaders endorsed their sanctions extension on Monday after concluding that Putin hadn’t done enough to fulfill his pledge to work for peace in Ukraine.
The Russian government sent a request to Putin on Tuesday to prolong Moscow’s ban on food imports from European Union countries, going the Western bloc one better by extending the retaliatory ban through June 24, 2016.

Russia and the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization have also stepped up arms production and deployment in moves each side claims were prompted by the other’s aggressive actions. Putin announced last week that at least 40 new nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles will be added to Russia’s defenses by the end of this year, and NATO plans to position new forces and weaponry in Eastern European allies’ territory to guard against any threat of Russian hostility.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, on a tour of NATO’s Eastern European flank this week, has said that tanks, armored vehicles and other military hardware would be deployed to member countries made nervous by Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis. Carter said the equipment would be moved to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria — all former Soviet republics or satellites that Moscow still considers part of its “sphere of influence.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

AFP Photo/Alexei Nikolsky

Ukrainian President Orders Evacuation Corridors To Help Civilians Escape Fighting

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Tuesday ordered government security agencies to help civilians escape separatist fighting and relocate to safety, his office announced.

The order to create civilian evocation routes out of areas where at least 200 people have died in more than two months of fighting coincides with an escalation in the intensity of clashes and what appear to be more concerted efforts by Ukraine’s beleaguered government forces to roll back the gains of the pro-Russia separatists.

A spokesman for the Ukrainian military operation aimed at recovering rebel-occupied buildings and facilities in eastern Ukraine said 43 separatist gunmen died in failed attempts early Tuesday to seize airfields in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, along the border with Russia.

Poroshenko, who was inaugurated Saturday, has vowed to end the fighting between government forces and the pro-Russia separatists by the end of this week. His order for aid to fleeing civilians could signal intent to intensify the government forces’ campaign to drive out the gunmen.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry reported unspecified progress a day earlier in negotiations with Russia in Kiev that are being mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE’s involvement is significant as the 57-nation alliance is the only security group that includes Russia and Ukraine, and the agency’s mediator, veteran Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, has experience brokering peace agreements in other regional hot spots such as Georgia and Chechnya.

“We’re at the point where there is the real possibility of achieving a cease-fire,” OSCE chairman and Swiss President Didier Burkhalter told journalists in Bern on Tuesday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted that the Ukrainian government stand down its troops in eastern Ukraine to facilitate a peace accord with the rebels who control key government facilities in at least a dozen towns and cities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Poroshenko has given no indication that he will comply with that demand, instead offering Russian gunmen involved in the fighting free passage out to their home country if they lay down their arms.

Putin has steadfastly denied arming or instigating the rebels seeking to wrest territory from Ukraine and annex it to Russia, and he has given no response to the separatists’ appeals to link the areas they have seized and proclaimed independent to the neighboring state. The Kremlin leader’s handling of the eastern Ukraine conflict has differed sharply from his swift annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in March after a hasty and dubious referendum.

At a separate meeting in St. Petersburg, the Russian imperial capital, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov conferred with his counterparts from Poland and Germany on ways to resolve the Ukraine crisis.

Lavrov welcomed Poroshenko’s plan to provide civilian evacuation corridors but called again for a halt in all military operations, claiming that government attacks have escalated in some areas.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees officials said last week that at least 10,000 people had been displaced by the fighting in eastern Ukraine. Lavrov said Russia was caring for more than 30,000 refugees from Ukraine in the neighboring Rostov region alone. Convoys of civilians have been seen leaving embattled areas like Slovyansk and Kramatorsk on a daily basis as fighting has intensified over the last two weeks.

The statement on the Ukrainian presidential website said Deputy Social Policy Minister Vitaly Mushchynin met with the regional UNHCR representative to discuss means of providing evacuees with accommodation, social assistance, pensions and employment in the areas to which they are relocated.

AFP Photo/Sergei Supinsky

Obama Says U.S. Backs Ukraine Fight Against Pro-Russia Separatists

By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau

WARSAW, Poland — Pledging support for a new and fragile government, President Barack Obama told Ukraine’s president-elect Wednesday that the U.S. will continue to back Kiev’s fight against separatists.

“The United States is absolutely committed to standing behind the Ukrainian people, not just in the coming days and weeks but in the coming years,” Obama said after a private meeting with Petro Poroshenko in Warsaw.

Obama announced a new chunk of nonlethal military aid for Ukraine — $5 million for the provision of body armor, night-vision goggles and communications equipment.

Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolate magnate and politician, was elected last month in Ukraine’s first elections since a rebellion ousted the country’s pro-Russia president in February. He is slated to be sworn into office on Saturday, assuming control of a government still battling militias seeking to follow their Crimean neighbors in joining Russia.

Poroshenko, Obama and other Western leaders have blasted the Kremlin as fueling the push for secession.

Even as the violence continues, Poroshenko is trying to stabilize the cash-strapped government in Kiev. The oligarch has pledged to work with the U.S. and European Union officials on political and economic reforms, including anti-corruption measures and energy reforms. The U.S. Congress approved a $1-billion aid package in April, but Ukrainian officials have pushed for more assistance, including military aid.

The leaders met on Obama’s second day of a four-day tour of Europe.

AFP Photo/Jim Watson

Ukraine Reports Advances In Fight Against Separatists

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW — Ukrainian authorities claimed significant progress Tuesday in their off-and-on fight against Russian separatists in the east of the country, but the separatists said the claims were exaggerated.

Parliament speaker Olexander Turchinov said Ukrainian army and security forces stormed a secret “terrorist” camp in the Donetsk region, killing scores of people, and officials also claimed to have inflicted major damage on separatists near the city of Slovyansk.

“Today in the morning, many terrorists were destroyed in the camp they had secretly set up in the industrial zone near the town of Severodonetsk” in Donetsk, Turchinov told a session of parliament. “Now our anti-terrorist operation forces are conducting a complex of active measures aimed at liberating Severodonetsk.”

There were widely conflicting reports about heavy fighting near Slovyansk, a city in the Donetsk region that has been the epicenter of the pro-Russia rebellion. Some Russian-speaking Ukrainians, assisted by heavily armed Russians who have streamed across the border, are seeking to secede from Ukraine, following the lead of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia earlier this year.

A Ukrainian government official, Vladislav Seleznev, claimed that Ukrainian forces had killed as many as 300 secessionists on the outskirts of Slovyansk.

However, the head of the pro-Russia group holding Slovyansk said only two of his men were killed in the fighting, and 12 wounded.

Vyacheslav Ponomaryov also claimed that his separatist forces had shot down a Ukrainian SU-25 combat jet and an MI-24 helicopter and burned six Ukrainian army armored vehicles. Seleznev denied that had occurred.

None of the claims could be independently confirmed.

An Associated Press journalist in the area reported hearing sustained gun and artillery fire and saw plumes of black smoke rising over Slovyansk. Ukrainian combat jets could be seen flying over the city.

The fighting was reported to be on the eastern outskirts of Slovyansk, with especially heavy combat near the outlying areas of Semyonovka and Krasny Liman.

“The terrorist forces are melting down,” Seleznev said in an interview with the Ukrinform news agency.

One Ukrainian serviceman died and 13 were wounded when an armored convoy ran into an ambush on the road from Izyum, a town near Slovyansk, Seleznev added.

Ponomaryov, who calls himself the mayor of Slovyansk, insisted that his forces had held their own.

“Our actions were very successful today, as we repelled three attacks and currently are holding our positions,” he said in a telephone interview from Slovyansk. “We are bracing now for a major storm of the town.”

A majority of the people in Slovyansk had already left the town for places they considered safer, said Sergei Penkov, a 46-year-old local resident.

“My family is on the way to Kherson, (a regional capital next to Crimea) as I am hiding here in the basement,” Penkov, a carpenter in Semyonovka, said in a phone interview. He said pro-Russia gunmen set up a large-caliber machine gun near his house.

“I nearly went deaf with them shooting like mad all day,” he said.

AFP Photo/Anatoliy Stepanov