Armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, patrol outside a Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye on Thursday. (AFP)
Moscow, March 13: Russia’s defence ministry announced new military operations in several regions near the Ukrainian border today, even as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany warned the Kremlin to abandon the politics of the 19th and 20th centuries or face diplomatic and economic retaliation from a united Europe.
In Moscow, the military acknowledged significant operations involving armoured and airborne troops in the Belgorod, Kursk and Rostov regions abutting eastern Ukraine, where many ethnic Russians have protested against the new interim government in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, and appealed to Moscow for protection.
A day after a deputy minister denied any military build-up on the border, the defence ministry released a series of statements beginning early today that appeared to contradict that.
They outlined what was described as intensive training of units involving artillery batteries, assault helicopters and at least 10,000 soldiers.
The operations confirmed, at least in part, assertions by Ukrainian leaders yesterday that Russia was massing forces, as well as amateur photographs that appeared to show columns of armoured vehicles and trucks in a border village called Lopan, only 48km from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
One statement announced that another 1,500 paratroopers from Ivanovo, east of Moscow, had parachuted onto a military base in Rostov, not far from the Ukrainian cities Donetsk and Lugansk.
With Nato announcing its own deployments of fighter jets and exercises to countries on Ukraine’s western border, the crisis appeared to be worsening despite 11th-hour diplomatic efforts to halt a secession referendum scheduled for Sunday in Crimea.
The ouster of the government of Viktor F. Yanukovych and Russia’s subsequent intervention in Crimea has deeply divided Russia and the West, and in Berlin, Merkel underscored the potential risks of what is being called the worst crisis in relations since the end of the Soviet Union.
Appearing before parliament today, Merkel criticised Russia’s actions in some of her toughest language to date, declaring that “the territorial integrity of Ukraine cannot be called into question”.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if Russia continues on its course of the past weeks, it will not only be a catastrophe for Ukraine,” she said. “We, also as neighbours of Russia, would not only see it as a threat. And it would not only change the EU’s relationship with Russia. No, this would also cause massive damage to Russia, economically and politically.”
As Russia’s largest trading partner in Europe, Germany is certain to have significant influence on the debate over how to respond to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Some politicians and observers in other European countries and in the US have suggested that Germany’s traditionally close trading and other ties with Russia have made it hesitant to adopt sanctions against the former superpower.
Merkel’s speech, however, suggested that President Vladimir V. Putin might have miscalculated the anger the occupation and annexation of Crimea would cause — or that he might be impervious to it.
Putin, who has remained in Sochi to attend the Paralympics there, has so far showed no sign of bending to international criticism.
In a meeting yesterday with the directors of national Paralympic teams, he implicitly reiterated the Kremlin’s argument that the ouster of Yanukovitch was an armed coup instigated by outside forces.
In her remarks, Merkel rejected any comparison between the situation in Crimea today and that in Kosovo in the late 1990s, when Nato bombed Serbia for 78 days to halt the attacks on Kosovo Albanians by Serbian forces.
Merkel was clear that Germany would go along with the other 27 states of the EU, and the US, if Russia did not open meaningful diplomatic talks and the West moved to freeze Russian accounts and impose travel bans or restrictions on leading Russian figures.