Russia masses armed forces near eastern Ukraine

Steven Lee MyersThe New York Times,Alison SmaleThe New York Times

MOSCOW - Russia's Defense Ministry announced new military operations in several regions near the Ukrainian border on Thursday, even as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany warned the Kremlin to abandon the politics of the 19th and 20th centuries or face diplomatic and economic retaliation from a united Europe.

In Moscow, the military acknowledged significant operations involving armored and airborne troops in the Belgorod, Kursk and Rostov regions abutting eastern Ukraine, where many ethnic Russians have protested against the new interim government in Ukraine's capital, Kiev, and appealed to Moscow for protection.

A day after a deputy minister denied any military buildup on the border, the Defense Ministry released a series of statements beginning early Thursday that appeared to contradict that. They outlined what was described as intensive training of units involving artillery batteries, assault helicopters and at least 10,000 soldiers.

The operations confirmed, at least in part, assertions by Ukrainian leaders on Wednesday that Russia was massing forces, as well as amateur photographs that appeared to show columns of armored vehicles and trucks in a border village called Lopan, only 30 miles from the Ukrainian city Kharkov. One statement announced that another 1,500 paratroopers from Ivanovo, east of Moscow, had parachuted onto a military base in Rostov, not far from the Ukrainian cities Donetsk and Lugansk.

With NATO announcing its own deployments of fighter jets and exercises to countries on Ukraine's western border, the crisis appeared to worsening despite 11th-hour diplomatic efforts to halt a secession referendum scheduled for Sunday in Crimea. The ouster of the government of Viktor Yanukovych and Russia's subsequent intervention in Crimea has deeply divided Russia and the West, and in Berlin, Merkel underscored the potential risks of what is being called the worst crisis in relations since the end of the Soviet Union.

Appearing before parliament on Thursday, Merkel criticized Russia's actions in some of her toughest language to date, declaring that "the territorial integrity of Ukraine cannot be called into question."

"Ladies and gentlemen, if Russia continues on its course of the past weeks, it will not only be a catastrophe for Ukraine," she said. "We, also as neighbors of Russia, would not only see it as a threat. And it would not only change the European Union's relationship with Russia. No, this would also cause massive damage to Russia, economically and politically."

As Russia's largest trading partner in Europe, Germany is certain to have significant influence on the debate over how to respond to Russia's actions in Ukraine. Some politicians and observers in other European countries and in the United States have suggested that Germany's traditionally close trading and other ties with Russia have made it hesitant to adopt sanctions against Russia.

Merkel's speech, however, suggested that President Vladimir Putin might have miscalculated the anger the occupation and annexation of Crimea would cause - or that he might be impervious to it.

Putin, who has remained in Sochi to attend the Paralympics there, has so far showed no sign of bending to international criticism. In a meeting on Wednesday with the directors of national Paralympic teams, he implicitly reiterated the Kremlin's argument that the ouster of Yanukovych was an armed coup instigated by outside forces.

"I would like to assure you that Russia was not the initiator of the circumstances we are now facing," Putin said.

In her remarks, Merkel rejected any comparison between the situation in Crimea today and that in Kosovo in the late 1990s, when NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days to halt the attacks on Kosovo Albanians by Serbian forces.

Merkel was clear that Germany would go along with the other 27 states of the European Union, and the United States, if Russia did not open meaningful diplomatic talks and the West moved to freeze Russian accounts and impose travel bans or restrictions on leading Russian figures.

"To make it unmistakably clear," she said, "nobody wants it to come to that."

The chancellor recalled that on Nov. 18, before Yanukovych rejected an association agreement with the European Union, she had made clear that the proposed accord was not directed against Russia and did not represent a choice for Ukraine between the West and Moscow.

On Thursday, she dwelled on the need for Russia to avoid what she predicted would be major damage to its interests by abandoning outdated geopolitics and adopting the 21st century language of mutual cooperation and interwoven globalization.

The possibility of sanctions has rattled Russia's markets and currency, and while some of the country's wealthiest tycoons have voiced concern, officials have responded to the threats defiantly, vowing to retaliate with sanctions of their own.

"We are ready for any eventuality, working on all the options," said Alexei Y. Likhachyov, a deputy minister of economic development. "Our sanctions will naturally be symmetrical."

As other leaders have, Merkel ruled out the use of force, but the military maneuvers on both sides underscored the risk of a far worse conflict over Ukraine's fate. She referred obliquely to "worrisome developments" in eastern Ukraine, however.

The unrest there - though less violent than in Kiev - has raised fears that Russia could do what it did in Crimea. There local officials defied the central government in Kiev and declared independence, even as Russian special forces took control of airports and other important government facilities.

Russia has not acknowledged the presence of additional forces in Crimea beyond those allowed by contract for the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol, although officials and analysts have said they include Russia's elite special operations troops. On March 1, Putin asked for and received authorization from Russia's upper house of parliament to order the use of the armed forces in Ukraine.

"The main aim of the ongoing activities is to check fully the teamwork of the units with subsequent combat training tasks on an unknown territory and untested ranges," one of the Defense Ministry statements said on Thursday.

On Wednesday, the head of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, Andriy Parubiy, claimed that Russian forces near the border totaled more than 80,000 solders, 270 tanks, 370 artillery systems and 140 combat aircraft.

"Ukraine today is facing the threat of a full-scale invasion from various directions," he said.

Alexander Golts, an author and military analyst, noted that the operations were not training exercises like the huge one Putin ordered at the end of February that require notification of neighboring states under a series of conventional arms agreements.

He added that the operations were clearly intended as a warning of Russia's readiness to intervene, if necessary, noting that the parachute drop was on a scale not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. They also served to tie down Ukraine's beleaguered military and prevent any effort to challenge the secession of Crimea.

"The goal is very clear: not to permit Ukrainian troops from moving toward Crimea," he said.


By STEVEN LEE MYERS and ALISON SMALE
The New York Times