Russia claims to have intercepted a US drone in Crimea

AP — March 15, 2014

Russian land grab has other Eastern European nations worried

A UNITED STATES surveillance drone has been intercepted above the Ukrainian region of Crimea, a Russian state arms and technology group says.

“The drone was flying at about 4000 metres and was virtually invisible from the ground. It was possible to break the link with US operators with complex radio-electronic” technology, Rostec said in a statement on Friday.

The drone fell “almost intact into the hands of self-defence forces” it added, claiming to have manufactured the equipment used to down the aircraft but not specifying who was operating it.

“Judging by its identification number, UAV MQ-5B belonged to the 66th American Reconnaissance Brigade, based in Bavaria,” Rostec said on its website, which also carried a picture of what it said was the captured drone.

The photograph appeared to show an apparently armed drone in flight, rather than debris.

The Crimean port of Sevastopol is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which is believed to be equipped with detection equipment.

Crimea, where pro-Kremlin forces have control, is to hold a referendum on Sunday on the peninsula joining Russia, in what Moscow says is a fair expression of self identity but the West views as an illegal annexation of sovereign territory.

Meanwhile, many of Eastern European countries bordering Ukraine have expressed concern that Russia’s move into Crimea may precipitate further military incursions in to former Soviet states.

“There is first of all fear … that there could be a possible contagion,’’ Romanian Foreign Minister Titus Corlatean told The Associated Press in an interview. “Romania is extremely preoccupied.’’

Specifically, concerns run high that after taking over the strategic peninsula of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin may be tempted to try a land grab in Moldova, where Russian troops are stationed in the breakaway province of Trans-Dniester. It’s one of several “frozen conflicts’’ across Eastern Europe whose ranks Crimea — many in the West now say with resignation — has joined.

In Romania, which neighbours predominantly Romanian-speaking Moldova, Monica Nistorescu urged the West to stand up to Putin — lest he come to view himself as unbeatable.

“The world should stop seeing Putin as the invincible dragon with silver teeth,’’ said Nistorescu, “because we will succeed in making him believe that Russia is what it once was.’’

Across the border, Moldovan fears of Russian invasion were in no way theoretical: “We are afraid the conflict in Ukraine could reach us in Moldova,’’ said Victor Cotruta, a clerk in the capital Chisinau. “Russian troops could take over Moldova in a day.’’

Many in the region are keenly aware that Poland had guarantees of help from France and Britain against Nazi aggression. But when Hitler invaded in 1939, France and Britain didn’t budge. That history feeds scepticism that NATO would come to the aid of eastern member nations in the event of a Russian attack.

“Poland’s history shows that we should not count on others,’’ novelist Jaroslaw Szulski told The AP.

Such feelings are particularly acute in the Baltic nations that are members of NATO and the European Union. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have sizeable Russian populations that Moscow periodically declares it needs to “protect’’ – the key word Putin used in justifying its invasion of Crimea.

“I’m a bit sceptical,’’ said Tiina Seeman in Tallinn, Estonia, when asked if she believed the West would come to her nation’s rescue. “I’d like to believe so but I can’t say I trust them 100 per cent.’’

Moscow routinely accuses Estonia and Latvia of discriminating against their Russian-speaking minorities. Tensions between Russia and Estonia soared in 2007, when protests by Russian-speakers against the relocation of a Soviet-era war monument ended in street riots. Many Estonians blamed Moscow — which has handed out passports to ethnic Russians in the Baltics — for stirring up the protests.

As she arrived at an EU emergency summit on Ukraine last week, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite expressed more confidence than Seeman in the US-led security alliance: “Thank God! Thank God that we are already 10 years in NATO!’’

But she, too, expressed grave concerns about Russia’s actions: “Russia today is trying to rewrite the borders in Europe after World War II.’’

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