Russia Vows to Prevent Bloodshed in Ukraine as Forces Control Missile Unit in Crimea
by Naharnet Newsdesk
05 March 2014, 13:04
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov vowed to prevent bloodshed in Ukraine as forces partly occupied a second missile defense unit in Crimea.
"We will not allow bloodshed. We will not allow attempts against the lives and wellbeing of those who live in Ukraine and Russian citizens who live in Ukraine," visiting Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference in Madrid.
A day after U.S. President Barack Obama said Russia was "not fooling anybody" over its role in Ukraine, Lavrov insisted the armed troops were not taking orders from the Kremlin.
"If they are the self-defense forces created by the inhabitants of Crimea, we have no authority over them," Lavrov said.
"They do not receive our orders," he said.
The Russian foreign minister, who left Madrid for a Paris meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after the conference, said Moscow would not allow bloodshed to erupt in Ukraine.
"We will not allow bloodshed. We will not allow attempts against the lives and wellbeing of those who live in Ukraine and Russian citizens who live in Ukraine," he said.
Ukrainian troops remain blocked inside their barracks in Crimea in the gravest stand-off between the West and Russia since the end of the Cold War.
Lavrov's meeting with Kerry will be their first since Ukraine's Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted after three months of pro-European Union protests which left nearly 100 dead.
Meanwhile, at one base in Cape Fiolent, near the city of Sevastopol in southern Crimea, Russian soldiers hold some parts of the base although the missile depot remains in Ukrainian hands, Volodymyr Bova, a defense ministry spokesman in the disputed Black Sea peninsula, told Agence France Presse.
Pro-Moscow forces are also in partial control of a second base in Evpatoria, which does not have missiles on its grounds.
Ukrainian soldiers still held the command post and control center there, said another spokesman for the defense ministry in Kiev, Oleksey Mazepa.
The takeovers seemed to have occurred without any violence, officials said.
Some 20 Russian soldiers, backed by hundreds of pro-Moscow forces, had already tried to occupy the Evpatoria base on Tuesday evening, leading to some skirmishes although no shots were fired.
Russian-speaking Crimea has come under de-facto control by pro-Russian forces since the ousting of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych and the installation of a new pro-European government in Kiev.
Putin however continues to deny there are any Russians operating in Crimea, insisting that gunmen that many have identified as Russian soldiers were in fact "local self-defense forces."
****************Ukraine crisis: Russia to hold talks with Nato in bid to avert war
US secretary of state John Kerry to meet Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov as Europe discusses possible sanctions
theguardian.com, Wednesday 5 March 2014 08.56 GMT
The US and Russia are to hold talks on easing east-west tensions over Ukraine as the west steps up efforts to persuade Moscow to pull its forces back to base in Crimea and avert the risk of a war.
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, will meet face-to-face for the first time since the crisis escalated, after a conference in Paris attended by all five permanent members of the UN security council.
Nato and Russia will hold parallel talks in Brussels amid concerns that a standoff between Russian and Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea could still spark violence, or that Moscow could also intervene in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said European Union leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday could decide on sanctions against Russia if there is no "de-escalation" by then.
"We're working on it," Fabius told the BFM television network ahead of a meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart. "There is no military solution."
In Donetsk -– the home of deposed president Viktor Yanukovych and a flashpoint of tensions between pro-Russian and nationalist Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine – Ukrainian police seized the city's government headquarters from pro-Russian demonstrators who had occupied it. On Wednesday morning, the Ukrainian flag was raised above the building, replacing the Russian flag that had flown there since Saturday, when protests had erupted following the announcement by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, that he had the right to invade.
Protesters led by a man who declared himself "people's governor" had been barricaded in the regional administration building demanding relations with Kiev be severed and control of the security forces placed in their hands.
A police statement said the evacuation began after reports the building had been booby-trapped with explosives.
Putin on Tuesday defended Russia's actions in Crimea, a strategic Black Sea peninsula that is part of Ukraine but used to be Russian territory, and said he would use force only as a last resort.
His comments eased market fears of a war over the former Soviet republic. But Russian forces remain in control of the region and Putin gave no sign of pulling servicemen – based in Crimea as part of the Black Sea fleet – back to base.
"What he wants above all is a new empire, like the USSR but called Russia," former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko told France's Europe 1 radio.
In Washington, Barack Obama acknowledged that Russia had legitimate interests in Ukraine but said that did not give Putin the right to intervene militarily.
"President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations," the US president said. "But I don't think that's fooling anybody."
A senior US administration official said Obama spoke to the German chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday and discussed a potential resolution to the crisis. The Russian-speaking German leader has good relations with the German-speaking Putin, and Berlin is Russia's biggest economic partner.
The official said Obama, in his phone call with Putin last Saturday, had discussed what officials called an "off-ramp" to the crisis in which Russia would pull its forces in Crimea back to their bases and allow international monitors to ensure that the rights of ethnic Russians are protected.
The US president will stay away from a G8 summit scheduled for Sochi, Russia, in June unless there is a Russian reversal in the Ukraine crisis, the official added.
At his first news conference since the crisis began, Putin said on Tuesday that Russia reserved the right to use all options to protect compatriots who were living in "terror" in Ukraine but that force was not needed for now.
His comments, coupled with the end of Russian war games near Ukraine's borders, lifted Russian bonds and stock markets around the world after a panic selloff on Monday.
In comments ridiculed by US officials, Putin denied Russian armed forces were directly engaged in the bloodless seizure of Crimea, claiming that the uniformed troops without national insignia were "local self-defence forces".
The French president, Françcois Hollande, became the latest western leader to raise the possibility of sanctions if Putin did not step back and accept mediation. He set out a tougher public line than Merkel, who has avoided talk of sanctions so far.
"The role of France alongside Europe … is to exert all necessary pressure, including a possible imposition of sanctions, to push for dialogue and seek a political solution to this crisis," Hollande told an annual dinner of France's Jewish community leaders late on Tuesday.
Putin earlier said western sanctions under consideration against Russia would be counter-productive. A senior US official said Washington was ready to impose them in days rather than weeks.
The Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, said after speaking to Obama at the weekend that the G7 group of leading industrialised nations were considering meeting in the near future, a move that would pointedly exclude Russia. The G7 became the G8 in 1998 when Russia was formally included.
Kerry, on his first visit to Kiev since the overthrow of Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych, accused Moscow of seeking a pretext to invade more of the country. He said the US was not seeking a confrontation and would prefer to see the situation managed through international institutions such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Yanukovych was expected to meet Lavrov, Hollande and the British foreign secretary, William Hague, on the sidelines of a Paris conference on Lebanon, before holding private talks with the Russian minister later in the day in the French capital.
Ukraine's acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchitsia, was also in Paris for talks with French officials and Kerry. It was not clear if he too would meet Lavrov.
No major incidents were reported in Crimea overnight. But in a sign of the fragility of the situation, a Russian soldier on Tuesday fired three volleys of shots over the heads of unarmed Ukrainian servicemen who marched bearing the Ukrainian flag towards their aircraft at a military airfield surrounded by Russian troops at Belbek, near Sevastopol.
After a standoff in which the two commanders shouted at each other and Russian soldiers levelled rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers at the Ukrainians, the incident was defused and the Ukrainians eventually dispersed. No one was hurt.
The Ukrainian border guard service said Russian navy ships had blocked both ends of the Kerch Strait between Crimea and Russia, but Ukraine's infrastructure ministry said the 2.7-mile (4.5-km) wide waterway was still open for civilian shipping.
***************Deep divisions split Donetsk as tensions simmer across Ukraine
Pro-Moscow clique seizes government building in city while protesters outside wave blue and yellow flag of Ukraine
Harriet Salem in Donetsk
The Guardian, Tuesday 4 March 2014 21.17 GMT
Inside the occupied government building, teenagers strolled through the regional council chamber and took selfies in the speaker's chair, now flanked by the flags of Russia and the Soviet-era independent republic of Donetsk.
Riot policemen with shields and helmets lined the corridors, but they seemed in no particular hurry to remove the pro-Russian activists who had burst into the 11-storey building a day before and appointed their own "people's governor".
"We will not leave until our demands are met," said Olexsander, aged 42, a self-appointed commander in the "local resistance" camped out in the council chamber. "Donetsk belongs with Russia," he said.
Pro-Russian groups have called on local deputies to declare the government in Kiev illegitimate, to put all security forces under regional control and to withhold taxes from the capital. They also want a referendum on the region's future status – although they have yet to agree on the question to be asked, and the new government in Kiev has said that any such vote would be illegal.
But while the Russian tricolour still fluttered over the parliament building on Tuesday night, hundreds of protesters gathered in the square outside, waving the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine, and calling for the country to come together in unity.
In the wake of Russia's armed intervention in Crimea, tensions are simmering across the Russian-speaking provinces of eastern Ukraine.
Reports that Russian military vehicles had gathered on Ukraine's border near Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk have triggered rumours that the Kremlin is preparing to pull another intervention in Ukraine's eastern regions.
Kiev says Moscow has organised the demonstrations and sent hundreds of Russian citizens across the frontier to stage protests which would provide the pretext for a military advance – a charge which was vehemently denied by protestors in the Donetsk parliament.
"I can tell you from my heart this is absolutely not true. The people here are only locals," said Olexsander.
Large pro-Russian demonstrations have been held in Odessa, Kharkiv and Donetsk, and Russian flags raised atop administrative buildings. The Kharkiv protests descended into violence when counter-demonstrators calling for Ukrainian unity were badly beaten by Russian nationalists.
The deep divisions in Donetsk – the home town of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych – were acted out over the course of the day in a series of rival protests for and against Ukrainian unity.
Many locals feel marginalised by the new administration in Kiev, which they describe as the fruit of a power grab by pro-Western "bandits".
In the morning, several hundred people gathered outside the occupied parliament, calling for eastern Ukraine to join Russia. Addressing the crowd over a loudspeaker, one woman asked why the pro-European demonstrators had been consecrated as heroes, while the Berkut riot police unit – blamed for the deaths of dozens of protesters – has been disbanded.
"Why are our boys not heroes? They suffered in Kiev. They were beaten and humiliated, made to go on their knees. Now they are all forgotten. They were just fired from their jobs. If they had not protected us, then those mad protesters would have burnt the whole of Kiev," she said.
Tensions ran high when a pro-Europe group mounted a counter-demonstration. "We are not trying to separate the country," said one man angrily. "The protesters in Kiev pretended to stand for peace and freedom, but they are hijacking the whole country".
But later on a string of "pro-unity" demonstrations across the city attracted people from many walks of life.
Waving a Ukrainian flag alongside several other local clergy, Maxim Gorinov, 37, a pastor at a local evangelical church, said he wanted Donetsk to stay in Ukraine.
"I am Russian, my family speaks Russian, but I am against separatism. We don't want Russian troops here to separate us by force," he said.
Significantly, the unity movement in Donetsk is backed by "ultras" – fanatical supporters of the local Shakhtar football club, one of Ukraine's two top teams. In the violent street protests which eventually forced Yanukovych to flee the country, Shakhtar ultras fought alongside their arch-rivals from Kiev's Dynamo. On Sunday the ultras from each team played against each other in the country's capital in a continued display of unity. The game ended in an uncontroversial 1-1 draw.
On Tuesday evening the largest pro-unity rally in Donetsk attracted more than one thousand people. Protesters carried Ukrainian flags and chanted "Donbas is Ukraine" and "Putin go home". Shakhtar football club ultras flanked ordinary demonstrators saying they were there "to protect the people".
"Why should we have a referendum? It is unconstitutional for Donetsk to do this on its own", said Dimitry Goryainov, a urologist who joined the rally. "We are against the separation of Ukraine," he added. "The main problem here is people are scared the new government needs to reassure them by calling parliamentary elections after the presidential election."
Even the members of the local Cossacks – a staunchly pro-Russian group – are firmly against military intervention by Moscow.
"Ukraine can solve its internal problems on its own," said the Cossacks' leader, Vadim Zhmarin. "We are against any troops entering Ukrainian soil – Nato or Russia," he added.
Unity activists' leaders claimed a moral victory, and said an even bigger march will be held on Wednesday. Alex Ryabchyn, a unity activist and PhD student, said he had never seen so many Ukrainian flags flying in Donetsk as he had now. "This really is a historical day for our city," he added.
Inside the parliament, pro-Russian demonstrators bedded down for the night.
• The headline of this article was amended on 5 March 2014 to more accurately reflect its contents.
***************Ukraine: Putin's headaches
There are still factors beyond the control of Russia's president: the economy, regional resistance, and the Crimea's Tatars
Phillip Inman, Ian Traynor and Peter Walker
The Guardian, Tuesday 4 March 2014 20.01 GMT
Following the 2010 election of Viktor Yanukovych as president, Ukraine relied increasingly on Russia for trade and investment. But what was once a steady source of income for Putin's oligarch friends could prove Ukraine's undoing - and lead to its eventual departure from Moscow's friendly embrace. In the last two years few international investment agencies have been prepared to put their money into Kiev. Private investment has collapsed and ageing industrial equipment has become more outdated and less productive. The World Bank ranked Ukraine 137 out of 183 economies in its Doing Business Report in 2013.A falling currency has seen foreign income from the sale of wheat, corn and sunflower oil decline despite increases in production; industrial export income has slumped while imports continued a steady climb. The result has been a balance of payments crisis made worse by a prolonged recession. The central bank has spent most of its foreign reserves propping up the currency and the government has run annual deficits just to keep the lights on.
The International Monetary Fund was due to offer Kiev a lifeline last summer but pulled out after it became obvious Yanukovych was unwilling to push through reformsto government supply contracts, new banking regulations and end state subsidies that favoured Ukraine's own oligarch community. Corruption not only scared off the Washington-based lender of last resort, it has changed the face of Ukraine's fledgling western-style economy by forcing thousands of small and medium-sized businesses to hand over control to conglomerates run by oligarchs.
Should Kiev's new government agree to the IMF's reforms, it could spell disaster for Russian oligarchs as much as Ukraine's homegrown billionaires. An IMF deal, possibly supplemented by John Kerry's $1bn offer of loan guarantees and something similar from the EU, would allow another look at the estimated $25bn of loans the government and banks cannot afford to cover. IMF officials would want to see legal documents to support loans and without them would likely cancel the debt. Without a loan, hundreds of businesses, including Russian firms lubricated by Ukrainian bank cash, could be forced to sell their assets on the cheap.
Loans considered legitimate would also lose out. Past IMF deals show that lenders would be made to wait up to five years before interest payments restarted.
The silver lining for Moscow is that a healthy Ukrainian economy would want more of Russia gas and oil - and would have the money to pay for them.
Vladimir Putin is expected to meet the allied leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan on Wednesday in an attempt to shore up regional support for his campaign in Ukraine, amidst rumblings of nervousness from neighbouring countries. The meeting with Alexander Lukashenko, the dictatorial leader of Belarus, bordering Ukraine, Russia and the European Union, and Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, has been brought forward by a week because of the Ukrainian crisis. The three countries are the sole members of Russia's Eurasia Union, the trading bloc that the Kremlin is seeking to form as its answer to the EU and which it wants Ukraine to join. Armenia, dependent on Russia for military support in its longrunning conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, has agreed to join the Russia-dominated bloc after spurning trade and political pacts with Brussels.
Putin is unlikely to hear any opposition from Lukashenko, but Nazarbayev has been voicing worries that the crisis is a risk for the region. He demanded a "thorough exchange of opinions and discussion of measures to prevent dangerous trends in the current situation," according to his press service.
The three leaders discussed Ukraine on Monday, focusing, according to the Kremlin, on the alleged dangers facing ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers in Ukraine.
"The parties discussed the developing crisis in Ukraine which creates real danger to the life and legitimate interests of the Russian-speaking population, in the first place in Crimea and eastern regions of that country," the Kremlin said.
Elsewhere in the former Soviet Union or in the broader eastern bloc, the alarm about Putin has reached fever pitch. The Baltic countries and the rest of eastern Europe are all Nato and EU members. Poland has been leading the calls for action against Russia, dubbing the Ukraine crisis the most dangerous in Europe since the wars in Yugoslavia. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are solidly on Ukraine's side against Russia. Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland released a statement on Tuesday recalling Soviet interventions in their countries in 1956, 1968, and 1981, deploring the Russian conduct and calling for a stiff international response.
For all the merits of Moscow's arguments that Crimea's ethnic Russian population feels betrayed by a Kiev-led move to cut ties with Moscow, there is another group in the region with a considerably longer history in the region: the Tatars. Descended from the Golden Horde, the western edge of the Mongol empire, which flourished for about a century after Genghis Khan's death, the Turkic-speaking Tatars have been in Crimea since around the end of the 14th century, remaining there after the Mongol empire broke up.
The Muslim Tatars have faced a difficult and sometimes brutal modern existence in Crimea, with large numbers of Russians moving into the region under the Tsars, while hundreds of thousands of Tatars relocated to Turkey.
The early years of Soviet rule marked something of a revival for the Tatars, with their language given official status alongside Russian in the so-called Crimean Autonomous Socialist Republic, set up by Moscow in 1921. But under Stalin the Tatars suffered terribly, facing famine under Stalin's agricultural programmes as well as campaigns of Russification, which obliged them to use the Cyrillic alphabet for their language.
In 1944 Stalin decreed that all Crimean Tatars had collaborated with the Nazis following the German occupation of Crimea, and 200,000 of them were deported to central Asia and other remote regions. Many died en route, and mosques were destroyed. It was not until 1967 that the USSR ruled that the mass deportations had been unjust, but even then leaders in Moscow made no efforts to assist their return. Some Tatars began to trickle home from exile in the late 1980s, finding a region now dominated by Russians and Ukrainians. With Ukrainian independence – Crimea had been given to Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Krushchev in a move seen at the time as a purely symbolic act – and many more returned. They now number about 240,000, around 12% of the country's population.
The Tatar population is mainly rural, and has enjoyed relative autonomy under Ukrainian rule, with representation in the national parliament. While there are exceptions, the Tatar population is assumed to be strongly in favour of Crimea staying under the control of Kiev rather than again passing into Russian hands. Writing in the Washington Post, Oxana Shevel, a specialist in post-communist politics at Tufts University, said that any Russian attempt to hold on to Crimea would face "sustained and mobilised opposition" from the Tatars. "When faced with the choice of being under either Russian or Ukrainian control, the Crimean Tatar leadership has consistently and unequivocally chosen Ukraine," she wrote.
***************Russian propaganda and Ukrainian rumour fuel anger and hate in Crimea
The Russian media is serving up a crude portrayal of events as a patriotic fight against fascists in Kiev and spurring its own far-right into action
Shaun Walker in Sevastopol
The Guardian, Tuesday 4 March 2014 19.41 GMT
Anyone spending any amount of time in Crimea at the moment will hear the words "Nazi" and "fascist" a lot. The protests in Kiev, people across the region will insist, were a Nazi-inspired revolt, backed by the west, and that is why the Russian operation to "protect" Crimea from such Nazis was so necessary.
Certainly, there were unsavoury elements among the Kiev protests, and there are a number of people with unpleasant far-right views that hold positions in the new interim government. Many people in western Ukraine do hold complicated views about the wartime period, and many in Russia are understandably concerned by the veneration by small parts of the protest movement of controversial collaborationist leaders.
"You Brits don't understand about fascism but we fought against Nazi Germany," said a 62-year-old Simferopol resident, Viktor Varazin. "We know what fascism is and we will never let it take hold here. Thank God the Russians are here."
Russian state television has gone out of its way to manufacture an image of the protests as a uniquely sinister phenomenon; a far-right movement backed by the west with the ultimate goal of destabilising Russia.
Back in December, a Russian state television reporter doing a live report from Kiev was accosted by a protester on air and had an Oscar statuette thrust into his hands. "Pass this Oscar to your channel … for the lies and nonsense you are telling people about Maidan," he said.
Since then, the rhetoric has only intensified on Russian television. In the last week, there have been claims that gangs of "unknown armed people" have crossed from Ukraine into Russia, without offering any evidence. There have also been suggestions that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian "refugees" have been forced to flee Ukraine for Russia, prompting a humanitarian crisis. (The pictures used by one Russian channel of border queues turned out to be routine queues at a Ukraine-Poland border.)
News programmes regularly refer to the Kiev protesters as "terrorists", "insurgents" or "fighters", and the rightwing and anti-Russian nature is emphasised. It is not just Russian media peddling the rumours. Opposition-minded channels in Ukraine have also been full of misinformation, although it is often a case of unverified rumours reported as fact. There was barely a day in January and February when Ukrainian media did not report planeloads of Russian special forces secretly landing in Kiev, or other nefarious but implausible manoeuvres by Viktor Yanukovych.
But perhaps the most disturbing thing about the Russian propaganda is that it is clear that many inside the Kremlin actually believe it. In December, a Russian government source assured the Guardian that the Kiev protests were the preserve of radical marginals, and that the rest of the city had no time at all for its goals.
On Tuesday, Putin conceded that he understood that there were some normal people on Independence Square who were tired of Ukrainian corruption, but there is nevertheless a sense in the Kremlin that the entire protest was a western-backed plot, as evidenced by Putin's claims that they were organised by "people sitting in America doing experiments, like on rats".
An insight into the thinking is given by Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst and politician, who is in Crimea meeting with local officials. When asked for his view on the Kiev protests, he said: "The plan it seems to me to was very clear. Give Ukraine a Mikheil Saakashvili type leader. Start a big anti-Russian campaign, train the army to Nato standards, fill everyone with anti-Russian ideology, and then throw the Ukrainian army into Russia at a time when a coup is being organised. I haven't spoken to Putin about it personally, but I am certain he thinks the same."
On the ground in Crimea, what is particularly odd is that the most vociferous defenders of Russian bases against supposed fascists appear to hold far-right views themselves.
Outside the Belbek airbase, an aggressive self-defence group said they were there to defend the base against "Kiev fascists", but also railed against Europe, "full of repulsive gays and Muslims".
"What you foreigners don't get is that those people in Maidan, they are fascists," said Alexander, a Simferopol resident drinking at a bar in the city on Monday night. "I mean, I am all for the superiority of the white race, and all that stuff, but I don't like fascists."
Even among less radical locals, there is a strong conviction that the western press has lied about the conflict and tension. Journalists have been physically attacked on several occasions, and crowds will frequently berate western reporters for their biased coverage.
"We know you have your orders from your masters to destroy Russia, but try to explain the truth – we welcome the Russians here because we don't want to live among fascists," said one angry woman outside a surrounded Ukrainian marines base in Feodosia on Sunday.
For all that state television has been pushing the Nazi comparisons, there is rather less tolerance when the boot is on the other foot. Andrei Zubov, a professor at a top Moscow university linked to the diplomatic service, wrote a column in the respected Vedomosti newspaper on Saturday comparing Putin's potential annexation of Crimea with the Anschluss of Austria and Nazi Germany in 1938. On Tuesday, he said the university had fired him for the comparison.
**********Five fibs from Vladimir: how Putin distorted the facts about Ukraine
Russian president's first press conference on crisis revealed rather subjective interpretation of events, writes Alec Luhn
Alec Luhn in Moscow
theguardian.com, Tuesday 4 March 2014 16.49 GMT
Vladimir Putin broke his silence over the crisis in Ukraine on Tuesday, addressing a press conference in Moscow that was delayed by what a state television channel called a hacking attack.
After politely writing down reporters' questions, Putin launched into a tirade against the new government in Kiev, at one point even demanding that a reporter say whether or not he agreed that the transfer of power in Kiev had been an "unconstitutional coup".
In the course of the diatribe, Putin distorted several facts. Here are five of the best:
1. The unidentified armed men who took control of Crimea were local self-defence units
Although the uniforms did not have insignia, they were easily identified as Russian army issue. The men also seemed suspiciously well trained. Putin argued that anyone could have bought Russian uniforms: "The post-Soviet space is full of such uniforms."
Yet the military-grade weapons that the troops were carrying, from Kalashnikovs to Dragunov sniper rifles to bazookas, are not as easy to explain away. Also, Guardian reporters have seen unidentified troops taking over Crimean airbases driving in military vehicles with Russian plates, which the foreign ministry has admitted are moving around the peninsula.
2. Western-backed forces carried out the coup
Putin said that the downfall of former president Viktor Yanukovych's government had been backed by western countries and incited by people "sitting in America doing experiments, like on rats", adding: "I think that this was all well prepared. Of course there are military units and they are there to this day, they are well-prepared and in this the western instructors did well."
While western donors have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to groups campaigning against Yanukovych's regime, there is no evidence that either the US or UK have trained opposition forces militarily. The so-called "self-defence units" which took part in the pro-European protests did not appear to have any military training, displaying instead some poor discipline and relying on improvised equipment such as motorcycle helmets and table legs.
3. Protesters in Ukraine were killed by former opposition snipers
The president said that the dozens of anti-Russian protesters killed by sniper bullets were victims of their own leaders. "There is the opinion that [snipers shot] on the orders of one of the opposition parties," he said, despite eyewitness accounts of police snipers shooting protesters. While Putin cited "freely available information" to back his claim, there is also video footage of snipers in police uniforms shooting at people.
4. Pro-Europe demonstrators shot and burned former ruling party employees
Putin claimed that protesters had shot one employee of the former ruling party and set another on fire. In reality, protestors threw stones and Molotov cocktails at a Party of Regions office on 18 February, after which a fire broke out. Emergency services rescued several people but were not able to save one office worker who died in the blaze. There were no credible reports that anyone had been shot.
5. Yanukovych is the legitimate president of Ukraine
When it came to the ousted Yanukovych government, Putin seemed to want to have his cake and eat it . On the one hand, the Russian president said he agreed with protesters that Ukraine's previous regimes were all "crooks" and admitted Yanukovych had no power and no political future. On the other, he still insisted Yanukovych remained the legitimate president.
**************Ukraine's Hungarian Minority Nervous as Crisis Rages
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 March 2014, 19:17
Ukraine's 150,000 ethnic Hungarians, feared as potential fifth columnists for ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, face a growing threat from far-right nationalists.
In the region of western Transcarpathia, the large Hungarian minority has grown increasingly uneasy.
Stick-wielding members of Pravy Sektor, the far-right paramilitary group that was on the frontline of bloody protests to depose Yanukovych in Kiev in February, stormed the town hall in Berehove, a town of around 24,000 people, last week.
A government building in the regional capital of Uzhhorod has been occupied since mid-February, with Pravy Sektor activists in red and black armbands standing guard outside.
"Chaos reigns here, police are invisible, people are afraid," said Zoltan Babjak, mayor of Berehove.
Hungarians make up around half the town's population, and around 12 percent of Transcarpathia as a whole.
They strongly backed Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential election, seeing him as more supportive of minority rights than Ukraine nationalists such as his predecessor Yulia Tymoshenko.
Yanukovych scrapped a Tymoshenko directive that college entrance exams should be in Ukrainian only and officially recognized minority languages in 2012.
One of the first acts of the new government last week was to overturn these measures, drawing ire from minority groups.
"Many (Hungarians) voted for Yanukovych in 2010 knowing that he was corrupt and ruinous for the economy," Elemer Koszeghy, editor of a Transcarpathian Hungarian-language newspaper, told Agence France Presse.
"The point was he wouldn't hammer them for not being Ukrainian like Tymoshenko did."
Such sentiments get short shrift from the group occupying the Uzhhorod government building.
"We like Hungarians and the other minorities here. We want them to be part of building a European Ukraine, but we have to fight the Russians," said Andriy Fedunets, 20, in the lobby of the building, as he watched footage from Crimea on a laptop.
Transcarpathia, cut off from the rest of Ukraine by the Carpathian mountains, was part of Hungary until after World War I.
It then changed hands several times, falling under Soviet rule after World War II when thousands of Ukrainians and Russians were settled in the region.
Some 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) from Kiev and bordering Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, it finally became part of independent Ukraine in 1991.
Some 1.2 million people live there, with Hungarians the largest in a patchwork of ethnic groups.
This has not endeared the Hungarian minority to the new interim government that emerged from the Maidan movement, named after Kiev's central Independence Square that was the epicenter of the protests.
"Some Ukrainians say we are 'anti-Maidan'," said Viktoria Szabo, a 20-year-old waitress in Berehove.
Now locals are fearful that they may even be drawn into a possible armed conflict over Ukraine's Russian-speaking peninsula of Crimea jutting into the Black Sea.
"We have bad experiences of fighting in other people's wars," Szabo says, referring to ethnic Hungarians conscripted to fight in Yugoslavia during the 1990s wars.
"This region is more central European than eastern, it's peaceful, tolerant," Laszlo Brenzovics, head of a Hungarian-language college in Berehove, told AFP.
"What happens in Kiev or Crimea is none of our business," said Szabo. "It's not our fight."
*************Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama engage in war of words over Ukraine
US accuses Russian leader of all but breaking international law after Putin says Crimea land grab is 'humanitarian'
Ian Traynor, Europe editor
The Guardian, Tuesday 4 March 2014 21.27 GMT
Link to video: John Kerry voices strong US support for Ukraine during Kiev visithttp://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2014/mar/04/john-kerry-voices-strong-support-ukraine-video
Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama traded accusations over the crisis in Ukraine on Tuesday, with the Russian leader seeking to blame the Americans for the growing international standoff as the US president all but accused Putin of breaking international law.
The barbed exchanges, a sign of the escalating tensions between Washington and Moscow, came as Putin delivered his first public remarks on the crisis – ruling out a war days after his forces took control of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, but reserving the right to use force to protect Russian speakers in the east of the country "as a last resort".
Speaking from his country residence outside Moscow, Putin gave a robust performance during which he portrayed Kiev as being in the grip of "terror, extremists and nationalists" rampaging on the streets. Putin described what is broadly seen as a Russian land grab in Crimea as "a humanitarian mission".
Obama and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, responded in apparent disbelief after Putin maintained there were no Russian forces occupying Crimea. "He really denied there were troops in Crimea?" said Kerry after arriving in Kiev, where he offered $1bn in loan guarantees to the new Ukraine government.
Kerry accused the Kremlin of "hiding its hand behind falsehoods, intimidation, and provocations".
Obama said: "There have been reports that Putin is pausing and reflecting on what's happened. There is a strong belief that Russian action is violating international law. Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers, but I don't think that is fooling anyone."
On the ground in Crimea tensions remained high, with Russian forces firing warning shots at unarmed Ukrainian soldiers marching on an airfield.
Following several days of drama that saw Ukraine's president toppled, a new government and interim head of state installed, and a Russian military seizure of Crimea, Putin said Moscow did not want to annex the territory.
"Regarding the deployment of troops, the use of armed forces. So far, there is no need for it, but the possibility remains," he said. "What can serve as a reason to use the armed forces? Such a measure would certainly be the very last resort."
But the Americans accused Putin of preparing to expand his control over the country. "It is clear that Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further," said Kerry.
The Americans are pushing for economic sanctions against the Kremlin elite and an EU emergency summit in Brussels on Thursday is also likely to decide on sanctions unless the Russians "de-escalate".
It may be that the language employed by Putin will be taken as de-escalation and reduce the pressure for punitive action against Russia – global markets rose in response to tentative signals that the Kremlin was not seeking to escalate the conflict.
Putin also warned that sanctions were a two-way street and that if Europe decided on that path, there would be a heavy cost to pay. EU trade with Russia is substantial, especially with Germany, more than 10 times the level of US-Russia trade, making it a lot less painful for Washington to decide on sanctions without fear of reprisals.
"We are not going to go to war with the Ukrainian people. But there is the Ukrainian army," Putin stated. "If we make this decision, we will make it for the people of Ukraine … Ukraine is not only our closest neighbour. It is our fraternal neighbour. Our armed forces are brothers in arms, friends. They know each other personally. I'm sure Ukrainian and Russian military will not be on different sides of the barricades but on the same side."
The Russian leader strongly denounced the new administration in Kiev. He said he would refuse to recognize Ukrainian elections scheduled for the end of May. The acting president and government were illegitimate and Kiev was in the hands of "armed terrorists", of "nationalists and extremists".
"Our major concern is the … nationalists and radical extremists that are rampant on the streets of Kiev," said Putin.
The deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych, who has fled to Russia leaving behind a lavish lifestyle in Kiev, remained the legitimate head of state, Putin insisted, although he also pronounced Yanukovych politically dead.
"There can be only one assessment of what happened in Kiev, in Ukraine in general. This was an anti-constitutional coup and the armed seizure of power," he said.
A week after Yanukovych's riot police killed dozens in Kiev and took fleeting control of a city centre square occupied since November by protesters, Putin retained the option of greater intervention on the basis of an alleged request from the toppled Yanukovych for Russian help. He contrasted that position with western behaviour.
"Our position is very different. Our position is completely legitimate. If we use force … we have received a request from a legitimate president. Also we have hisorical and cultural ties with those people. And this is a humanitarian mission. It's not our goal to conquer somebody."
Unarmed Ukrainian troops bearing their regiment and the Ukrainian flags march to confront soldiers under Russian command occupying the Belbek airbase in Crimea in Lubimovka, Ukraine. Ukrainian troops march to confront soldiers under Russian command occupying the Belbek airbase. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
There were also signs of new negotiations on the crisis. Arseniy Yatseniuk, the acting Ukrainian prime minister, said his government was in touch with Russian ministers with a view to holding "consultations".
Kerry called for negotiations, while it appeared that international observers and mediators would be dispatched by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, of which both Russia and Ukraine are members.
"I've spoken as directly to President Putin today as I can," said Kerry. "To invite him to engage in a legitimate and appropriate dialogue, particularly with the current government of Ukraine."
Obama said: "There is a suggestion that Russia's actions have been clever, but this has not been a sign of strength, rather a sign that countries near Russia have deep concerns about this kind of meddling and if anything it will push them further away from Russia."
There are said to be 16,000 Russian troops securing control of Crimea, where they enjoy broad backing from the majority ethnic-Russian population.
Putin said there were no Russian forces, merely local self-defence units. "There are many military uniforms. Go into any local shop and you can find one," he said. Putin also said he was continuing preparations to host a summit of the G8 countries in Sochi in June. All the other countries have frozen their preparations. While Washington has said Russia could be kicked out of the G8, Berlin is resisting such moves.
Putin was dismissive of the threats. "If the leaders don't want to come, fair enough," he said.
****************Russia sells off record $11.3 billion in foreign currency to prop up ruble
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, March 5, 2014 7:01 EST
Russia sold a record $11.3 billion in foreign currency to support the ruble on March 3, the so called “Black Monday” when the ruble came under unprecedented pressure due to concerns about conflict in Ukraine, central bank data showed on Wednesday.
The Russian central bank sold foreign currency to buy rubles and prevent the Russian currency from falling further, after the market reacted with panic to parliamentary approval for President Vladimir Putin’s request to allow military action in Ukraine.