KIEV: Russia’s military presence on the flashpoint border with Ukraine is of “grave concern” and Moscow’s forces could invade in days if the Kremlin gave the order, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has warned.
But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) Russian troops deployed close to the Ukrainian border will return to base after completing their exercises. “After finishing training in the Rostov region [bordering Ukraine], one of the battalions that took part has already returned to base in the Samara region,” he added.
With tens of thousands of Russian troops massed at its border, Ukraine’s new government took the first step on Wednesday toward granting more powers to the country’s regions, but stopped well short of creating the kind of federation sought by Moscow.
NATO’s top commander General Philip Breedlove told the Wall Street Journal and New York Times that Russian troops were poised to attack with 12 hours’ notice and could take large swathes of Ukrainian territory in three to five days.
“Essentially the [Russian] force is ready to go,” Breedlove told the Wall Street Journal.
“We believe that it can move within 12 hours… We believe it could accomplish its objective between three to five days,” he added.
NATO estimates that Russia has deployed some 40,000 troops to its border with eastern Ukraine after annexing the southern Crimea region last month in response to the fall of Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed president.
In the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War, both Washington and Kiev have been increasingly worried that Moscow intends to seize southeastern parts of Ukraine with large populations of ethnic Russians following the Crimea takeover.
Breedlove said potential new targets for Russia included a land corridor linking Crimea and mainland Russia, the strategic Odessa port, and the breakaway Russian-speaking region of Transdniestr in Moldova.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he shared that assessment and warned of a “very massive Russian military buildup along the Ukrainian border.”
“This is really a matter of grave concern,” Rasmussen said, at the close of a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels on Wednesday.
Battle over regional reforms
Ukraine’s high-stakes plan to allow greater regional autonomy came after a veiled Kremlin threat to raise the price it charges for crucial gas deliveries for a second time in a week.
But having won vital financial backing from the International Monetary Fund last week as well as moral support from NATO, the Western-backed government appeared ready to resist the Kremlin’s diplomatic attempts to dislodge the more Russified regions in the east of the ex-Soviet country from direct Kiev rule.
The government said it would like to eliminate the current practice under which local governors are appointed by the president and move toward an election system.
But it said nothing about granting regions the right to set their own trade policies or establish special relations with foreign states.
“The main idea behind the concept is to decentralize power in the country and substantially broaden the authority of local communities,” the government said.
Moscow has sought radical constitutional reforms in Ukraine in the wake of the February overthrow of a pro-Kremlin regime whose rejection of closer ties with Europe sparked months of protests.
Russia would like to see Ukraine transformed into a federation that allows eastern regions in the vast nation of 46 million people to adopt Russian as a second state language and overrule some decisions coming from Kiev.
The Kremlin has argued the changes were needed because ethnic Russians have come under attack from the ultra-nationalist forces that helped overthrow Kiev’s Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych in February.
But Washington and its European allies fear that Russia — having already annexed Crimea — is using the federation idea as an excuse to further splinter Ukraine by granting the Kremlin veto powers over Kiev’s regional policies.
US officials have instead urged Ukraine’s new leaders to introduce more targeted reforms that undercut Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arguments for sending troops into southeastern Ukraine.