Russian troops mass near Ukraine border for military drills

March 13, 2014 at 4:45 PM
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KIEV, Ukraine, March 13 (UPI) -- Russia's military began new drills near Ukraine Thursday despite a warning from German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Russia would suffer if it didn't back off.

The Russian Defense Ministry's announcement came as diplomats prepared for talks in London Friday to try to open a diplomatic door on the Ukraine crisis before the autonomous, pro-Russia Crimea votes on seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The ministry said tanks, infantry and other troops would be involved in the drills that are expected to last until the end of March. Officials didn't indicate how many troops would be involved in the exercises.

In Washington, White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to comment on the exercises, saying, "Our concern obviously is focused on the need to de-escalate, and any escalation would result in additional costs."

Carney said the Obama administration was working "to make clear to the Russians that we understand they have concerns and interests in Ukraine, and making clear that there is a way for those concerns and interests to be addressed," including discussions with Kiev's new government and sending in international monitors.

In an address before the German Parliament in Berlin earlier Thursday, Merkel said Europe was ready to impose sanctions if Moscow doesn't agree to start negotiations with the new government in Kiev -- and would expand sanctions if Ukraine were further threatened.

"If Russia continues with its policy of the past weeks, then this wouldn't only be a disaster for Ukraine. We as neighboring states would also regard this as a threat," Merkel said. "This wouldn't only change the relationship between the European Union as a whole to Russia, but would also, and I am deeply convinced of this, massively damage Russia economically and politically."

Russia has signaled that it was examining the consequences of possible sanctions from the West and was prepared to impose similar penalties.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and their dialogue would resume in London, the Russian ministry said.

Moscow has refused to recognize the government that took over in Kiev after its ally, President Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted following a months-long popular uprising. Senior Russian lawmaker Leonid Slutsky said on Moscow radio late Wednesday Russian troops were in Crimea in case of "armed aggression, armed expansion from Kiev."

Besides the field exercises, the Defense Ministry announced an artillery exercise involving 8,500 troops in southern Russia.

Russia also confirmed it has sent six fighter jets and three transport planes to Belarus for joint patrols, the Journal said. Belarusian officials said there were increased NATO air patrols in the region amid the Ukraine crisis.

Also in Washington, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew met with Interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to discuss the Ukrainian government's economic reform plans, the U.S. assistance package for the country and Ukraine's discussions with the International Monetary Fund about a potential loan program, the White House said Thursday.

During the meeting, Lew and Yatsenyuk discussed "the importance of Ukraine taking ownership of the reform agenda to restore its financial stability and economic growth," the White House said in a readout of the meeting.

Also Thursday, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning Russia for its actions in Crimea and voicing support for the new Ukrainian government in Kiev.

The resolution said the autonomous, pro-Russia Crimea was unquestionably part of Ukraine and "recognized as such by the Russian Federation and by the international community," Interfax reported.

The resolution called for a diplomatic settlement of the crisis and the "immediate withdrawal of all military forces present illegally on Ukrainian territory," while urging "full respect for international law and existing conventional obligations."

The resolution also said the Crimea Parliament's planned secession vote was "illegitimate and illegal" because the Parliament cannot organize a referendum to change Ukraine's internationally recognized borders.

During a meeting in Washington Wednesday with Ukrainian Interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, U.S. President Obama also warned that Russia would face "costs" from the United States, such as economic sanctions and visa restrictions, and expressed hope a diplomatic solution could be found.

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