President Vladimir V. Putin on Tuesday ended the surprise military exercise he ordered last week, as scheduled, and ordered the military units that participated to return to their permanent garrisons, writes nytimes.com

The exercise coincided with the deployment of Russian special forces troops to Crimea beginning last Friday, though officials maintained it was not directly related to
the conflict in Ukraine. Nothing the Kremlin reported on Tuesday suggested that the Russian operations in Crimea would end.

The military exercise involved the mobilization of the entire Western Military District, which stretches from the border of Ukraine to the Arctic, as well as units from the Central Military District, the Baltic Fleet and air defense commands. The troops dispatched to Ukraine are reported to have deployed from ports and airfields in the Southern Military District.

Mr. Putin ordered the mobilization only days before Russian forces began spreading through Crimea, and despite officials’ reassurances to the contrary, the timing and scale of the operations had a palpable message. Mr. Putin attended the culmination of the exercises near St. Petersburg on Monday, appearing in state television reports observing live-fire training involving tanks and helicopters.

The Kremlin announced the end of the maneuvers – which involved 150,000 troops, as well as air and naval forces and live-fire demonstrations in several Russian bases – and reported that they had been "successfully carried out.”

On Monday, the embattled new government of Ukraine accused Russian forces of a major escalation in military pressure over control of the Crimean Peninsula, saying Russia had deployed 16,000 troops in the region over the last week and had demanded that Ukrainian forces there surrender within hours or face armed assault.

Russia denied it had issued any ultimatum and no fighting was reported, but Moscow was clearly moving to strengthen its grip on Crimea, brushing aside new admonitions of economic punishment and isolation from President Obama and European leaders.

At the United Nations, where the Security Council met for the third time in an emergency session since Friday, the Ukrainian ambassador, Yuriy Sergeyev, distributed a three-page letter asserting that the Russians had sent 16,000 troops into the Crimean Peninsula since Feb. 24.

The troops, Mr. Sergeyev wrote, had moved to "seize, block and control crucial governmental and military objects of Ukraine in Crimea.”

The Interfax-Ukraine news agency quoted an unidentified Ukrainian Defense Ministry official as saying that Russia’s Black Sea Fleet commander had set a deadline of 5 a.m. Tuesday — 10 p.m. Monday, Eastern time — for Ukrainian forces stationed in Crimea to lay down their weapons, and that many Ukrainian soldiers seemed to have taken the threat seriously. Russia’s Interfax news agency said the Black Sea Fleet had no such plans, and the would-be deadline came and went, apparently uneventfully.

Still, the conflicting reports only served further to worsen tensions in the Ukrainian crisis, which has grown drastically in the past few weeks to a new confrontation between Russia and the West reminiscent of low points in the Cold War.

Russia has denied Western accusations that it flouted international law in asserting military control in Crimea, a historically Russian region that is home to its Black Sea naval base. The Russians have asserted that they moved to protect their legitimate interests there after President Viktor F. Yanukovych fled more than a week ago after protests in Kiev against his shift toward closer relations with Russia.

The Kremlin still regards him as Ukraine’s legitimate president.

The Security Council meeting in New York was requested by Russia’s ambassador, Vitaly I. Churkin, who told fellow members that Russia had acted to thwart what he called threats by ultranationalists, including anti-Semites, against Russians and Russian speakers inside Ukraine. Mr. Churkin also held up a copy of a letter from Mr. Yanukovych to Russia asking for military help.

Yet the Security Council meeting quickly became a venue for East-West diplomatic gibes and rejoinders. The British ambassador, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, called Russia’s justification bogus, while the envoy from Lithuania,Raimonda Murmokaite, told the Council it "resurrects the memory of darkest pages of the 20th century.”

After Mr. Churkin had spoken, Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, said, "Listening to the representative of Russia, one might think that Moscow had just become the rapid response arm of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.”

The Council took no action, and it remained unclear what — if anything — it might agree to do, since Russia, a permanent member, has veto power.

Although Crimea was relatively calm on Monday, Russian forces tightened their grip on key military bases and other facilities throughout the peninsula, including naval installations and outposts of the border police, and stepped up pressure on Ukrainian officials to declare their loyalty to pro-Russian authorities.
989 reads | 04.03.2014

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