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Putin Denies Invading Ukraine, Warns West ‘Not To Mess With Us’

By Isabel Gorst and Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin denied Friday that the Kremlin had sent troops and tanks into eastern Ukraine and countered threats of increased Western sanctions with the advice that it is “best not to mess with us.”

Putin likened the 5-month-old battle between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian government forces in eastern Ukraine to the World War II siege of Leningrad by invading Nazi troops. He also reminded the outside world that has condemned his incursions into Ukraine that Russia is “one of the leading nuclear powers.”

But his defiant pose during a visit to a Kremlin-sponsored youth camp near Moscow, which was broadcast on state-run television, coincided with a proposed “humanitarian” appeal to the pro-Russia separatists to allow Ukrainian troops encircled in the Donetsk region to evacuate to government-held territory to the west.

The appeal, which the Kremlin-allied separatists agreed to on condition the Ukrainian troops surrender their weapons, was likely intended to facilitate a prisoner swap, as the Ukrainian side earlier this week took 10 Russian paratroopers captive after they crossed the border with one of several armored convoys that have entered Ukraine in the last two weeks.

In Kiev, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Ukraine would pursue full membership in NATO once a new parliament is seated following elections set for Oct. 26. President Petro Poroshenko last week dissolved the Supreme Council that had become dysfunctional after the overthrow of former President Viktor Yanukovich, whose Party of Regions deputies dominated the legislature chosen in 2012.

Ukraine had agreed to remain nonaligned after the breakup of the Soviet Union in exchange for guarantees from Russia that its security and territorial integrity would be respected. But after Yanukovich was toppled in February after a three-month rebellion over his scuttling of a European Union trade deal, Russian troops invaded Ukraine’s Crimea region and Putin annexed it in mid-March, spurring the separatist actions in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen acknowledged Ukraine’s right to seek membership in the Western military alliance without expressing support or opposition to a Ukrainian bid — a move Putin would clearly regard as a threat to his authority in the former Soviet region. But the NATO chief condemned Russia’s armored incursion into Ukrainian territory, satellite images of which the alliance released Thursday.

“This is a blatant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It defies all diplomatic efforts for a peaceful solution,” Rasmussen said.

“Despite Moscow’s hollow denials, it is now clear that Russian troops and equipment have illegally crossed the border into eastern and southeastern Ukraine,” Rasmussen said. “This is not an isolated action, but part of a dangerous pattern over many months to destabilize Ukraine as a sovereign nation.”

He warned Russia that its military involvement on its neighbor’s territory “can only deepen the crisis in the region, which Russia itself has created and has continued to fuel.”

Foreign ministers of the 28-nation European Union met in Milan, Italy, on Friday and heard appeals from some member nations for tougher sanctions against Russia to punish its latest aggression against Ukraine.

“We are now in the midst of the second Russian invasion of Ukraine within a year,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, referring to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March. Citing the reported intrusion of Russian tanks and troops and the seizure of Novoazovsk this week, Bildt said the European alliance must “call a spade a spade.”

At the youth camp on the shores of Lake Seliger, northwest of Moscow, Putin was filmed chatting with young Russians about the need to be “ready to repel any aggression towards Russia.”

Putin denied that Russia was involved in the fighting in eastern Ukraine that has taken 2,600 lives since April, calling Ukrainians and Russians “one people.”

His visit to the youth camp came a day after Russian tanks and troops thundered into eastern Ukraine along the Sea of Azov, opening a new front for the embattled separatists who were on the verge of losing their last two strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk to resurgent Ukrainian government forces.

In what sounded like a warning to the West against imposing further sanctions on Russia, Putin reminded the outside world that Russia is nuclear-armed and ready to defend itself.

“Thank God, I think no one is thinking of unleashing a large-scale conflict with Russia. I want to remind you that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers,” he said.

Alluding to Western countries, Putin added that “Russia’s partners … should understand it’s best not to mess with us.”

AFP Photo/Maxim Shipenkov

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Presidents Of Russia, Ukraine To Meet In Belarus As Fighting Rages

By Isabel Gorst and Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW — The presidents of Russia and Ukraine will meet next week in Minsk, the capital of neighboring Belarus, to discuss the combat consuming eastern Ukraine and Kiev’s diplomatic turn toward the European Union that sparked the conflict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s office announced the Aug. 26 summit that will include the three former Soviet states comprising the Kremlin-led Eurasian Customs Union — Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan — as well as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and three top officials of the European Union.

The talks between Putin and Poroshenko are the first since the Ukrainian candy magnate’s June 7 inauguration that restored elected leadership to Kiev after seven months of political unrest. They held a short discussion on the fringes of the 70th anniversary of the Allied D-Day landing in Normandy on June 6.

“Naturally, we cannot ignore the catastrophic situation in Ukraine’s eastern regions, especially Donetsk and Luhansk,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Itar-Tass on Tuesday. “We can assume that it is going to be part of the agenda.”

Poroshenko’s office said the meeting was arranged to discuss “issues related to the implementation of the association agreement between Ukraine and the EU, energy security, and the stabilizing of the situation in the Donbas,” the conflict area in eastern Ukraine’s Don River basin.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich provoked a rebellion among European-leaning Ukrainians in November when he rejected a European Union association agreement that the nation and the alliance had been negotiating for three years.

Yanukovich was overthrown during the late February culmination of the revolt, and the appointment of an interim leadership of his political opponents spurred Putin to deploy troops to Ukraine’s Crimea region to secure the strategic peninsula where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based. Russia annexed the seized territory on March 18, inspiring pro-Russia separatists in other areas of eastern Ukraine to rebel against rule from Kiev.

Putin has been accused by the Ukrainian leadership and its Western allies of fomenting the insurgency and sending in arms and mercenaries. The Kremlin denies it has backed the militants, although many of its leaders have been Russian citizens, including special forces officers commanding fighters.

On Tuesday, a Ukrainian security spokesman said government forces had retaken control of more territory in Luhansk, the besieged eastern city that is one of two remaining strongholds of the separatists. The city is reportedly surrounded by troops.

Col. Andriy Lysenko of the Ukrainian Security and Defense Council told journalists in Kiev, the capital, that one part of central Luhansk had been “liberated,” although fighting continued in other areas of the city where more than 200,000 civilians remain.

He said troops had recovered the bodies of 17 civilians killed Monday when rocket fire hit an evacuation convoy headed for Russia to escape the escalating dangers. The recovery operation had to be suspended before all of the victims’ remains were retrieved, Lysenko said. He repeated the Kiev government’s accusation that separatists fired the rockets that incinerated the line of cars and buses carrying the civilians to safety.

Living conditions in central Luhansk, a city of 465,000 before the conflict, are reportedly dire. Many of the shabby concrete apartment blocks have been hit by artillery fire over the last five months.

A Russian convoy that left Moscow eight days ago carrying aid to trapped civilians in Luhansk remained parked near the Russia-Ukraine border awaiting security assurances from the Kiev government and the insurgents before escorts from the International Committee of the Red Cross would proceed with delivery, Russian media reported.

A Red Cross spokeswoman in Geneva said the aid agency was still waiting for security guarantees from both sides, although Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported that the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk had provided those assurances.

The separatist-declared state isn’t recognized outside of the insurgent circles, and third parties such as the Red Cross usually look to the militants’ allies in Moscow to secure their cooperation.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated the separatists’ pledge to facilitate the aid delivery and told reporters in Moscow that he hoped the Kiev government wasn’t deliberately delaying their security assurances to disrupt the Russian effort.

Putin last week announced he was unilaterally sending the 280-truck convoy, stirring fears in Kiev that the huge deployment was cover for plans to invade eastern Ukraine, as happened in Crimea six months ago.

AFP Photo/Maxim Shipenkov

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