Ukraine defiant amid Russia’s war games

Ukraine’s foreign minister yesterday blasted the Russian decision to start military mano­euvres along Ukraine’s border – and vowed his country would fight any invading troops.

Ukrainian security force officers are deployed at a checkpoint near Slaviansk. Picture: Reuters

Andriy Deshchytsia said Russia’s decision to launch the military exercises “very much escalates the situation in the region”.

He said Russian president Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula had taught his government a lesson and it would not back down a second time. He said “having this experience, we will now fight with Russian troops if … they ­invade Ukraine”.

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Mr Deshchytsia said the “Ukrainian people and Ukrainian army are ready to do this”.

The new Russian military exercises are taking place “even closer to the Ukrainian border than it was planned earlier”, he said, and demanded Russian troops withdraw.

He spoke after Ukrainian forces killed at least two pro-Russia insurgents in the restive east, an escalation that prompted new threats from Mr Putin. The Ukrainian interior ministry claimed “up to five terrorists” had been killed while destroying three checkpoints north of Slovyansk, a city 100 miles west of the Russian border and the focus of the armed insurgency.

Stella Khorosheva, for the pro-Russian Slovyansk militants, said the situation was quiet inside the city but fighters were ready to repel any attack by troops sent by Kiev.

“We will defend ourselves to our last drop of blood. We are ready to repeat Stalingrad,” she said, invoking the Red Army’s victory over German forces in 1942-3. The statements by Mr Putin and defence minister Sergei Shoigu sharpened anxiety over the prospect of a Russian military incursion.

Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov warned a day earlier that any attack on Russian citizens or interests in Ukraine’s would bring a strong response.

In Kiev, acting president Oleksandr Turchynov accused Russia of backing separatists in the east and demanded that Moscow stop its intimidation. In an address to the nation, he said Russia was “co-ordinating and openly supporting terrorist killers” in eastern Ukraine, where government buildings in at least ten cities have been seized by pro-Russia gunmen.

Mr Turchynov said Russia must pull back its troops from the border and “stop the constant threats and blackmail”.

In St Petersburg, Mr Putin warned of unspecified consequences from Ukraine’s “punitive operations”.

“If the Kiev government is using the army against its own people, this is clearly a grave crime,” Mr Putin said.

Russia already has tens of thousands of troops stationed in regions along its border with Ukraine. The latest Russian military exercises will involve ground troops in the south and the west and the air forces ­patrolling the border, Mr Shoigu said.

Nato deputy-secretary General Alexander Vershbow sharply criticised Russia for making “veiled threats” and said Russia should pull its troops back.

Earlier in Japan, US president Barack Obama accused Moscow of failing to live up to “the spirit or the letter” of a deal last week to ease tensions in eastern Ukraine. If that continues, Mr Obama said, “there will be further consequences and we will ramp up further sanctions”.

With no appetite in the US for a military response, Mr Obama is largely banking on Mr Putin caving in under a cascade of economic sanctions targeting his closest associates.

But the success of that strategy also depends on European nations with closer financial ties to Moscow taking similar action.

“I understand that additional sanctions may not change Mr Putin’s calculus,” Mr Obama said in Tokyo. “How well they change his calculus in part depends on not only us applying sanctions but also the co-operation of other countries.”

In other developments, US journalist Simon Ostrovsky has been released in eastern Ukraine, said online news site Vice News, for whom he was working in Slovyansk where he was detained by pro-Russian separatists on Monday.

No information was immediately available from the separatists about several other people they say they have detained.

Eastern Partnership ‘in ruins’ as heads of former Soviet republics gather in Prague

Amid Ukraine’s deepening crisis, the presidents of post-Soviet republics and European Union member states are gathering in Prague to save a project to boost their international connections.

Launched in the Czech Republic’s capital in 2009, the Eastern Partnership was supposed to inspire democratic change in six post-Communist nations to ensure political stability and turn the territory east of the EU’s border into a region of stable and prosperous democracies.

In exchange, the EU promised Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine free-trade agreements, visa-free travel and other incentives.But this eastward move by the EU has been put in doubt after Russia annexed Crimea, part of Ukraine, last month and warned it would not acquiesce with any attempts by the West to expand into what it considers a strategic region.

By gathering in Prague this week, the leaders of these former Soviet republics are in some way restating their preference for closer ties to Europe.

But some experts believe this EU programme has already failed.

“The project of Eastern Partnership as it was created five years ago is, in fact, in ruins,” said Petr Kratochvil, director of Prague’s Institute of International Relations. “We might even say it’s dead.”

Mr Kratochvil said a lack of real support from the 28-nation EU and corruption in those former Soviet republics are among the factors to blame for the programme’s failure.

But he said the greatest factor is Russia’s push since 2012 “to intensively fight against the spreading of EU’s influence in the region and in particular against the Eastern Partnership”.

Russia worked aggressively and successfully to derail the EU deal with Ukraine in November, setting off months of protests that toppled Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich. The same thing happened to the EU agreement with Armenia.

The presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova as well Ukraine’s foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, are scheduled to attend the meeting with their counterparts from the Czech Republic, Austria, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia.

Only Belarus is boycotting the event because its leader, authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, was not invited. The outcome of the gathering is unclear.

With a plan by Russia to soon launch an ambitious Eurasian Union counter project, the partnership countries now find themselves “between a rock and a hard place,” said Mr Kratochvil.