On Tuesday, United States President Barack Obama arrived in Brussels for scheduled talks with leaders of the European Union and NATO, which will focus on Ukraine and other transatlantic issues.
Sources have indicated that the talks will focus on free trade deals and on lingering concerns caused by allegations of American spying on EU allies, however discussions on the crisis in Ukraine are likely to dominate the talks. On Tuesday, Mr Obama stated that Russia was acting “not out of strength, but out of weakness” in Ukraine, warning of the possibility of further sanctions against Russia if it encroached further into Ukraine. The US President, who is currently on an official tour in Europe, elaborated Wednesday, stating “energy is obliviously a central focus of our efforts,” and acknowledged that this “will have some impact on the global economy.” He also praised the EU for the steps it had already taken, along with the US, to penalise Russia. These have included visa bans and asset freezes against a number of Russian officials.
During a press conference held shortly after completing talks with EU leaders Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy, the three men spoke of the special relationship between the transatlantic partners, with Mr Obama stating “the world is safer and more just when Europe and American stand as one.” Mr Van Rompuy, the European Council president, called it a “crucial” relationship. Their talks at the headquarters of the 28-nation EU bloc also covered plans to finalise a transatlantic trade partnership, as well as efforts to tackle Iran’s nuclear programme and Syria’s chemical weapons.
Security has been heightened in the Belgian capital, with police cordoning off areas near the EU headquarters and Mr Obama’s hotel. Some extra 800 police officers have been deployed on Brussels streets for the duration of Mr Obama’s visit, which will last less than 24 hours. In total, Belgium has spent 10m euros (£8.35m) on increased security.
Russia Suspended from G8
As United States President Barack Obama continues his official visit in Europe, the President and other world leaders have decided to end Russia’s role in the group of leading industrialized nations. The move to suspend Russia’s membership in the G8 is just the latest direct response from major countries allied against Russia’s annexation of Crimea. An aide to British Prime Minister David Cameron also confirmed that a group summit, initially planned for June in Sochi, Russia, where the Winter Olympics were held, is now off.
A statement released by the White House Monday stated “international law prohibits the acquisition of part or all of another state’s territory through coercion or force,” adding “to do so violates the principles upon which the international system is built. We condemn the illegal referendum held in Crimea in violation of Ukraine’s constitution.” In response to Russia’s suspension from the G8, Russian Foreign Minster Sergey Lavrov indicated Monday that the move would be no big deal. Speaking during a news conference, the foreign minister stated “G8 is an information organization that does not give out any membership cards and, by its definition, cannot remove anyone….All the economic and financial questions are decided in G20, and G8 has the purpose of existence as the forum of dialogue between the leading Western countries and Russia.” Lavrov added that Russia was “not attached to this format and we don’t see a great misfortune if it will not gather. Maybe, for a year or two, it will be an experiment for us to see how we live without it.” In a nod to political and economic reforms, the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and Italy added Russia to the group in 1998, effectively transforming it from the G7 to the G8.
Speaking shortly after attending a nuclear security summit with other world leaders in the Netherlands, President Obama stated that the United States and its allies in Europe are “united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far.”
International Concern Over Russian Troop Movement in Eastern Ukraine
The White House has warned that Russian forces gathering on the border with eastern Ukraine may be poised to invade as the government in Kiev indicated that the prospect of war with Moscow was continuing to grow after the annexation of Crimea.
On Monday, a close aide to US President Barack Obama indicated that the White House is “very concerned by the potential for escalation” after Russia massed its troops on the border with Ukraine. Speaking to journalists as leaders gathered in The Hague to discuss a response to the crisis, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes stated that the officials in the US “…are watching very closely, we believe that Russia stands an enormous amount to lose” from any escalation. The official statement from the White House comes as a US military officer confirmed Monday that Russian military presence continued to increase along Ukraine’s eastern border. The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, indicated “they’re still growing in numbers. They’re still in a hot state of readiness,,” however the officer did note that there was no sign that Russian forces were about to launch an invasion of eastern Ukraine,” adding “we haven’t seen anything to suggest anything is imminent….But if they chose to move, it would not take long.”
Even before Putin formally annexed Ukraine’s southern Crimea region last week, following a referendum, which has been condemned as illegal by Western government, thousands of Russian troops had held a military exercise near the border regions. With the annexation of Crimea, NATO officials are now concerned that Putin could have desires to take over Transnistria, a restive Russian-speaking region in western Moldova, also known as Trans-Dniester, where separatist leaders have demanded to be allowed to join Russia following the annexation of Crimea. Moldova’s President Nicolae Timofti warned Putin last week against considering the annexation of Transnistria.
Moscow however has denied any such plans despite President Vladimir Putin’s open ambition to resurrect vestiges of the Soviet empire and stamp his authority over eastern European nations that sought protection from the west following the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. The Kremlin has also made it clear that it intends to “protect” compatriots in the Russifies south-eastern swaths of Ukraine that it says have been victimised by violent nationalists since last month’s rice to power of a pro-European team.
According to officials in the Ukraine, the Russians had roughly 30,000 troops near the border, including air and ground forces, air defence weapons, fighter jets, motorised vehicles, airborne units and cargo planes in order to move those troops.” An official also indicated that Russian forces were deployed along the main roads leading to the border but had not moved any closer to Ukraine in recent days. A second defence official noted that the Russians had more than enough troops in place in order to launch an operation in eastern Ukraine if it decided to. Officials in the United States have indicated that they are closely monitoring the situation.
Ukraine Orders Troops out of Crimea
On Monday, Ukraine ordered its outnumbered troops to withdraw from Crimea after the seizure of another military base.
Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov sombrely told lawmakers that both servicemen and their families would now be relocated to the mainland. In a national televised statement, the president indicated, “the national security and defence council has reached a decision, under instructions from the defence ministry, to conduct a redeployment of military units stationed in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.” He added, “the cabinet of ministers had instructions to resettle the families of soldiers as well as everyone else who today is forced to leave their homes under the pressure and aggression of the Russian army’s occupying forces.”
Crimea’s pro-Kremlin deputy premier Rustam Temirgaliyev indicated Monday “all Ukrainian soldiers had either switched to the Russian side or are leaving the territory of the Crimea.”
The assault by Russian troops and pro-Kremlin militias continued Monday with the fall of a Ukrainian naval base in the east Crimean port of Feodosia. Russia’s latest surprise assault came during the pre-dawn hours on Monday and involved both armoured personnel carriers and stun grenades. The Ukrainian defence ministry announced that Russian paratroopers were lowered onto the Feodosia naval base from four helicopters in a commando-style operation in which guns were fired in the air and stun grenades strewn across the facility. Less than two hours later, several military trucks were seen leaving the base with some Ukrainian marines whose hands had been tied. The base in Feodosia housed Ukraine’s only marine battalion. The country’s marine union indicated that it was home to an elite unit that was part of the navy.
Meanwhile on Monday, the Kremlin stamped its claim on Crimea with a symbolic visit by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, the first top Moscow official visit to Crimea since its March 16 independence referendum. In comments broadcast on Russian state television, Shoigu stated, “in the last days, a group of officers has been checking and making sure there is no interim stage or anarchy, making sure that the military hardware does not fall into not the best hands.
European Union leaders warned Russia on Thursday that it faces further sanctions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated that Russia will face escalating EU sanctions if it does not take steps to east the crisis over Crimea. Speaking ahead of an EU summit in Brussels, Mrs Merkel indicated that the current political situation also means that the G8 effectively no longer exists.
Tensions in Crimea remain high after its leaders signed a deal with Moscow to split from Ukraine and to join Russia. Following Sunday’s referendum, which the West and Kiev have stated was illegal, Crimean leaders signed a treaty with Moscow on Tuesday to absorb the peninsula, which was an autonomous republic in southern Ukraine, into Russia. Tensions on the peninsula increased Wednesday, after pro-Russian forces took over at least two military bases in Sevastopol and Novo-Ozyorne. Ukraine’s Navy Commander, Serhiy Hayduk, was also detained, however he has since been released. Russia’s lower house is set to vote on ratifying the Crimea treaty on Thursday, with the upper house voting on Friday. The measure is expected to pass with minimal opposition. In a resolution on Thursday, Ukraine’s parliament indicated that the country would “never and under no circumstances end the fight to free Crimea of occupants, no matter how difficult and long it is.”
Western leaders have denounced Russia’s actions in Crimea as a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and a breach of international law. The EU has already imposed sanctions on twenty-one people connected to Moscow’s intervention in Crimea, and is expected to discuss expanding the sanctions, when it meets Thursday, to include political and military figures close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Speaking in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated that Russia will face escalating EU sanctions if it does not take steps to ease the crisis over Crimea. Speaking ahead of an EU summit in Brussels, Mrs Merkel indicated that the current political situation also means that the G8 effectively no longer exists. She added that the EU would “make clear that we are ready at any time” to increase sanctions against Russia “if there is a worsening of the situation.” According to the German Chancellor, the EU will also “draw consequences for the political relations between the EU and Russia, as well as for relations between the G7 and Russia….It is obvious: as long as the political context for such an important format like the G8 does not apply, as is the case at the moment, the G8 doesn’t exist anymore. While the German Chancellor did not specify what the sanctions will be, it does remain unclear whether Germany expects Russia to undo the integration of Crimea into Russia in order to avoid tough economic measures. The G8, which comprises of seven of the world’s leading industrialised nations, and Russia, is scheduled to hold a summit in the southern Russian city of Sochi in June.
The United States has also ordered the freezing of assets and travel bans on eleven individuals, with officials indicating that they are considering expanding these. However on Wednesday, President Barack Obama ruled out US military involvement in Ukraine, stating “we do not need to trigger an actual war with Russia.” United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon is expected to meet with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday before travelling to Kiev where he will meet with the Ukrainian interim government on Friday. The UN Chief has called for a solution to the crisis that will be guided by the principles of the UN Charter, including sovereignty, territorial integrity and the unity of Ukraine.
Pro-Russian activists have taken control of the headquarters of Ukraine’s navy in the Crimean city of Sevastopol.
Reports in Crimea have indicated that pro-Russian forces appear to have taken control of the Ukrainian base in Sevastopol, the port city which houses Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Television footage depicted around 200 people, some armed, breaking down the gates and going in to negotiate with senior Ukrainian personnel. On the ground sources have indicated that no shots were fired during the take over however Ukrainian Navy Chief Serhiy Hayduk has reportedly been detained and the Russian flag is now flying over the base. Although officials in Kiev ordered its troops to stay in place, a number of Ukrainian servicemen were later seen leaving the base carrying their belongings. Others are believed to still be inside, refusing to surrender.
The reported takeover of the Ukrainian base came one day after Ukraine’s army indicated that a soldier had been killed in an attack on a base in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol. Russia also indicated that one member of the pro-Russian “self-defence” force in Crimea had also been killed. The reports however have not been independently confirmed. Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk warned Tuesday that “the conflict is shifting from a political to a military stage.”
The latest developments in the on going crisis come one day after Crimean leaders signed a treaty with Moscow, effectively absorbing the peninsula into Russia. Russia’s constitutional court has approved the accession treaty, and there is minimal doubt that parliament will also give its full backing. The move on Tuesday followed Sunday’s referendum, which approved Crimea’s split from Ukraine. The vote, which showed 97% of voters in favour of joining Russia, has been widely condemned by the West. The West and the Ukrainian government in Kiev have indicated that the hastily organized referendum was illegal and will not be recognized. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has stated that the EU must send “a clear warning” to Russia, adding that the G8 group should discuss whether to expel Russia “if further steps are taken.”
The US and the EU are amongst those who have already imposed sanctions on several officials from Russia and Ukraine who have been accused of being involved in Moscow’s actions in Crimea. Brussels and the White House have stated that the sanctions will be expanded, with Moscow warning that this move was “unacceptable and will not remain without consequences.”
Amidst the growing tensions, Ukrainian Defence Minister Ihor Tenyukh and First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Yarema travelled to Crimea on Wednesday to try to defuse the tensions however they wee prevented from entering. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is heading to the region, and will meet with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday and with Ukraine’s interim leaders in Kiev on Friday.