Steven Lee Myers & Alison Smale
Russia’s Defence 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 armoured 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 Defence 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 armoured vehicles and trucks in a border village called Lopan, only 30 miles from the Ukrainian city Kharkiv. 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 F 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.”