NATO chief: New Russian troop buildup seen near Ukraine’s border

Laura Smith-Spark — CNN June 19, 2014

A Ukrainian tank opens fire during a battle with pro-Russian separatist fighters at Slovyansk, Ukraine, Friday, June 6, 2014. At least five Ukrainian soldiers were wounded, two of them heavily in this short clash with the pro-Russian separatist fighters. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky). Click to enlarge

A Ukrainian tank opens fire during a battle with pro-Russian separatist fighters at Slovyansk, Ukraine, Friday, June 6, 2014. At least five Ukrainian soldiers were wounded, two of them heavily in this short clash with the pro-Russian separatist fighters. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky). Click to enlarge

NATO has seen a “new Russian military buildup” near the border with Ukraine, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday, a development that may alarm Kiev and the West.

Rasmussen warned that any Russian intervention across the border could prompt tougher international sanctions.

His words, in response to a question from a Russian journalist at an event in London, came a day after Ukraine’s new President announced he would soon implement a unilateral cease-fire to ease the crisis in the restive eastern part of the country.

“Yes, I can confirm that we now see a new Russian military buildup — at least a few thousand more Russian troops deployed to the Ukrainian border, and we see troop maneuvers in the neighborhood of Ukraine,” Rasmussen said.

Russia and Ukraine have been engaged in a tense standoff since March, when Russia annexed Crimea and massed troops along its border with Ukraine. But NATO had in recent weeks reported signs that some were withdrawing.

Of the new forces, Rasmussen said, “If they’re deployed to seal the border and stop the flow of weapons and fighters, that would be a positive step. But that’s not what we’re seeing. I consider this a very regrettable step backwards and it seems that Russia keeps the option to intervene further.”

Ukraine’s government in Kiev has accused Russia of allowing weapons and military equipment, including tanks, to cross the border illegally into the hands of pro-Russia separatists.

Rasmussen warned that “the international community would have to respond firmly if Russia were to intervene further. That would imply deeper sanctions which would have a negative impact on Russia.”

The United States and European Union already have imposed economic sanction on targeted individuals and firms in Russia.

In his speech at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, Rasmussen talked of plans for a future NATO that, he said, “answers the questions raised by the new security realities of the 21st century.”

Rasmussen is also due to meet Thursday with UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Ukraine leans toward EU

Ukraine will sign an Association Agreement with the European Union on June 27, President Petro Poroshenko’s office said late Wednesday.

Such treaties create a framework for across-the-board cooperation with the EU, and in certain cases are viewed as a step toward membership in the EU.

Displeasure with the pro-Russian stance of Ukraine’s former president was among the reasons for the protests that led to his leaving office. Poroshenko, who is pro-EU, is moving Ukraine to closer partnerships in Europe.

Cease-fire plan

Military vehicle destroyed during clash between pro Russian separatists and Ukrtainian government forces near Mariupol on June 13. Click to enlarge

Military vehicle destroyed during clash between pro Russian separatists and Ukrtainian government forces near Mariupol on June 13. Click to enlarge

Ukraine’s government has been carrying out what it calls an anti-terrorist operation, centered in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, to try to regain control from pro-Russian separatists.

Poroshenko said Wednesday that Ukrainian forces are putting their arms down only shortly, referring to a time in which he expects separatist groups to disarm.

The plan offers amnesty to those who didn’t commit serious crimes, the President said. An escape corridor out of Ukraine will be offered for those who disarm.

“We expect that hostages and seized premises will be liberated. We expect that a large number of civilians will use the security guarantees for the citizens of Donbas,” Poroshenko said, referring to Ukraine’s eastern region.

The plan would also include the closure of the Ukraine-Russia border and changes to the constitution to decentralize power.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking at a news conference in Baku, Azerbaijan, said the plan sounded like “ethnic cleansing.”

Lavrov said he heard that “this temporary cease-fire is needed to allow so-called separatists to leave Ukrainian territory. Well, this is probably close to ethnic cleansing — if the Russian-speaking, ethnic Russian population is invited to leave the country because the authorities do not want to take note of their lawful demands.

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