Ukraine Says Russia Forces Push Beyond Crimea Before Vote

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gsr-5Ukraine said Russian forces pushed deeper into its territory on the eve of today’s secession vote in Crimea, as the worst diplomatic standoff between Moscow and the West since the Cold War threatens to escalate.

Russian troops entered the Kherson region on the Azov Sea from the Crimea peninsula they already occupy, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, Yuriy Sergeyev, told reporters yesterday at the UN in New York. The Foreign Ministry in Kiev issued a statement protesting the seizure by Russian soldiers of the village of Strilkove.

“The situation is very dangerous,” acting Ukraine President Oleksand Turchynov told lawmakers in the capital of Kiev. “I’m not exaggerating. There’s a real threat of invasion on Ukrainian territory.”

The latest incursions raise tensions as, over the objections of the Ukraine government, the U.S. and other Western nations, Crimea holds its referendum on becoming part of Russia. A majority of the region’s residents are ethnic Russians and the measure — which doesn’t offer the alternative of maintaining a united Ukraine — is expected to pass.

While the European Union and the U.S. are threatening to tighten sanctions against Russia if it doesn’t pull back, regardless of the outcome of today’s vote, President Vladimir Putin has said ethnic Russians in the region need protection from “extremists.”

Testing Waters

The latest reports of Russian military activity beyond Crimea’s borders in eastern Ukraine have heightened concerns that, using a similar justification, he plans to extend his reach in Ukraine.

“Russia now takes it as a fact that they’ve picked off Crimea and is sending more soldiers and provocateurs into Ukraine to test the waters and see how much further they can go,” Joerg Forbrig, a senior program officer at the Berlin bureau of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., said in a phone interview.

Russia yesterday vetoed in the United Nations Security Council a resolution proposed by the U.S. that stressed the need for political dialogue to resolve the crisis. In New York, 13 members of the Security Council backed the resolution and China abstained.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said the vote tally shows Russia is “isolated, alone, wrong.” Chinese Ambassador to UN Liu Jieyi said the resolution would have resulted “in confrontation and further complicate the situation.”

Social Media

U.S. officials who monitor social media say the number of posts on Twitter, Facebook and other public Internet sites about possible Russian incursions into eastern Ukraine and a growing number of unidentified men who appear to be Russians with military or police training rose sharply yesterday. The officials were quick to add that the trend doesn’t mean any Russian action is imminent and that the accuracy and origin of such posts are difficult to verify quickly.

As many as 130 Russian soldiers are in Strilkove, in eastern Ukraine, digging trenches and doing “other engineering work,” said Oleh Slobodyan, a spokesman for the Border Guard Service. The Russians have three armored personnel carriers and are in control of a Ukrainian natural gas pumping station, he said.

No military confrontations between Ukraine and Russia have occurred so far, he said.

Infiltration Concerns

Still, U.S. and allied intelligence officials said they are concerned about the Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s eastern border and reports that some irregular forces are infiltrating cities in eastern Ukraine. The officials said it’s unclear whether the actions are preparations for a military assault, an effort at intimidation, a move to foment unrest and manufacture a pretext for Russian intervention in eastern cities such as Donetsk and Kharkiv, or some combination of all three.

One official, who like the others requested anonymity to discuss classified intelligence assessments, said that based on Russia’s moves in Crimea, an unprovoked invasion of eastern Ukraine is considered less likely than what he called creeping annexation justified by claims — rejected by a UN official who visited the region — that pro-Russia Ukrainians are threatened by fascist sympathizers in the country.

The current U.S. assessment, discussed yesterday at a White House meeting, is that Putin may move quickly after today’s referendum in Crimea to annex it, either by pushing legislation through the Russian parliament or by taking some executive action, two officials said.

Kharkiv Clashes

Clashes erupted March 14 in Ukraine’s second-biggest city, Kharkiv, near Russia’s border, where a shootout left two dead and a policeman injured. Russian troops massed just inside Russia’s border nearby for exercises, helping fuel adding the concerns of a Kremlin move to annex eastern Ukraine. Russia said it’s examining numerous requests for protection received from people living in Ukraine.

Ukraine Acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said armed clashes are being provoked to provide an excuse for occupation and military aggression by Russia.

In a statement he posted on his Facebook Inc. (FB) page, Avakov and head of Security Service Valentyn Nalyvaichenko urged Ukrainians to surrender any illegal weapons to police in face of a worsening crime situation and “systematic provocations by foreigners” in Crimea and southeastern parts of the country.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who met in London March 14 with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov without a breakthrough, warned Russia would face consequences if it failed to change course.

22,000 Soldiers

Russia moved more forces into Crimea, bringing the total to about 22,000 soldiers as of the night of March 14, Ukrainian Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh said in a website statement. The troops “may be used for an offensive,” he said.

Lavrov expressed outrage over March 13 clashes in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk in which one person was killed and 17 injured, according to the regional government.

“Militants came to Donetsk from other regions and started fighting with demonstrators,” Lavrov said.

About 2,000 pro-Russian protesters on March 13 attacked anti-war demonstrators in Donetsk who support a united Ukraine, killing a 22-year old spokesman for the nationalist Svoboda party.

Turchynov, the acting Ukrainian president, blamed the violence in Donetsk and Kharkiv on “Kremlin agents.” He said his country’s parliament will hold an emergency meeting tomorrow.

Putin’s Goals

Putin is driven by deep geopolitical goals and isn’t likely to fear the consequences of sanctions by Western nations, Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington policy group, said in a telephone interview.

After watching the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expand and the U.S. build ties with former Soviet Union countries, Russians feel they “have every reason to push back and expand their ‘sphere of privileged interests,’” Rumer said.

Putin’s government contends ethnic Russians in Crimea are at risk after the ouster last month of PresidentViktor Yanukovych, an assertion that Ukraine’s new leaders deny. The Kremlin supports Crimea’s recently appointed administration, which organized today’s referendum.

Crimean Premier Sergei Aksenov told reporters in the region’s capital, Simferopol, that the peninsula may become part of Russia next week, though full integration may take a year. Turnout is expected to be more than 80 percent, he said.

Incorporation Readied

“Preparations are already under way to incorporate Crimea into Russia,” Sergei Markov, a Kremlin adviser and vice rector of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics in Moscow, said in a telephone interview from Sevastopol yesterday.

Russian lawmakers are scheduled to consider legislation March 21 that would allow Russia to incorporate parts of countries where the central authority isn’t functioning and local residents want to secede, he said.

The bill isn’t needed to make Crimea part of Russia because the region already declared independence from Kiev, according to Markov. It would allow for the annexation of parts of eastern Ukraine, though Russia would only want to do that if it’s sure “we are welcomed with flowers,” he said.

Stocks Decline

Russian stocks posted the biggest weekly drop since May 2012, with the Micex Index (INDEXCF) sliding 7.6 percent to 1,237.43 on March 14, the lowest level since May 2012. Russia’s 10-year bond fell, driving up the yield by 38 basis points to 9.79 percent, the highest level since 2009. The ruble weakened 0.2 percent to 43.0570 against Bank Rossii’s target basket of dollars and euros on March 14 in Moscow. Gold climbed to the highest in sixth months.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index of U.S. stocks fell 2 percent last week to 1,841.13, erasing its gains for the year. The UX index of Ukrainian stocks was down 7.1 percent for the week. Even so, Ukrainian Eurobonds and the hryvnia rebounded after Lavrov said Russia had no invasion plans.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will travel to NATO members Poland and Lithuania tomorrow for talks on Ukraine, according to a White House statement. The Pentagon said last week it would send 12 F-16 aircraft to Poland as a sign of U.S. commitment to defend allies in the region; the U.S. previously sent six fighter jets to Lithuania.

EU foreign ministers, who meet tomorrow, are poised to impose asset freezes and visa bans on people and “entities” involved in Russia’s seizure of Crimea, an EU official said.

Forbrig said that visa bans and other political moves aimed at Russia won’t deter Putin.

“We have to get to the material base of Putin’s regime through economic and trade measures that both target his revenue directly and have a snowball effect of scaring off investors and fueling capital flight out of Russia,” he said.