NATO and the Obama administration made a plea for keeping post-revolutionary Ukraine in one piece as tensions mounted in the Crimea and the Kremlin ordered a test of combat readiness of nearby Russian military units.
Defense ministers of the 28-nation U.S.-led alliance called for a “sovereign, independent and stable” Ukraine, emphasizing the “principle of inviolability of frontiers.” North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the warning was addressed “to whom it may concern.”
Allied defense ministers issued the statement at a meeting in Brussels today after Interfax reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the military drills involving around 150,000 troops in Russia’s central and western military districts, including areas bordering Ukraine.
Scuffles between Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Russian demonstrators in the Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that was part of Russia until 1954 and remains home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet, underscored the unpredictable outcome of the popular uprising that swept away Ukraine’s president last week.
“NATO is trying to send a very strong message that Russia should be very careful and not intervene in Ukraine,” Jan Techau, head of the Brussels office of the Carnegie Endowment and a former research adviser at the NATO Defense College in Rome, said by telephone. “It’s telling the Russians that there will be a very high price if they do intervene. It’s a unified Western message.”
Russia notified western governments of the military drills via the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Vienna. Rasmussen said he learned of the maneuvers during today’s meeting. “I suppose the Russians have lived up to all their obligations as regards transparency,” he said.
Ukraine, home to 45 million people, has been caught between Russia and the West since the dissolution of the Soviet Union made it independent in 1991. Putin in 2008 blunted an effort by Ukraine’s then pro-western government to seek NATO membership and is trying to bind it to his planned Eurasian economic union.
Last week’s ouster of Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych set back Putin’s designs and left a divided Ukrainian opposition to form a government to steer the country away from economic calamity and try to better ties with the West without alienating Russia.
U.S. officials stressed non-interference. Traveling with President Barack Obama to Minnesota, Josh Earnest, deputy White House press secretary, told reporters that “outside actors” must “end provocative rhetoric and actions.”
In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry called on Russia to live up to a commitment to respect Ukraine’s independence, saying it would be a leading beneficiary of a democratic, economically restored Ukraine.
“We’re hoping that Russia will not see this as a sort of a continuation of the Cold War,” Kerry said on MSNBC, according to a transcript. “This is not Rocky IV, believe me.”
Russian rhetoric veered between reaffirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity and preparing for military contingencies. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia will gird for “crisis situations, posing a danger to the country’s military security,” Interfax reported. Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said the plans and timing for the drills weren’t triggered by events in Ukraine, Interfax reported.
Whether Ukraine holds together will hinge on Crimea, site of the port that has been a key Russian naval and trading lifeline since the age of the tsars. Demonstrators for and against a referendum on becoming part of Russia faced off today in the regional capital, Simferopol.
Techau of the Carnegie Endowment questioned whether Russia’s military has the strength to intervene in a country of Ukraine’s size. Putin’s main goal, he said, is to maintain influence by “stirring up fears and resentment among Russian speakers in Ukraine.”
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