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Putin Rebuffs Obama As Ukraine Crisis Escalates

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* Obama, Putin still far apart on Ukraine

* Obama has ordered sanctions against Russia

* Putin says he cannot ignore Russian speakers in Ukraine

* Russian parliament leaders say Crimea entitled to choose

* Border guard says 30,000 Russian troops in Ukraine

MOSCOW/SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine, March 7 (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin rebuffed a warning from U.S. President Barack Obama over Moscow's military intervention in Crimea, saying on Friday that Russia could not ignore calls for help from Russian speakers in Ukraine.

After an hour-long telephone call, Putin said in a statement that Moscow and Washington were still far apart on the situation in the former Soviet republic, where he said the new authorities had taken "absolutely illegitimate decisions on the eastern, southeastern and Crimea regions.

"Russia cannot ignore calls for help and it acts accordingly, in full compliance with international law," Putin said.

Ukraine's border guards said Moscow had poured troops into the southern peninsula where Russian forces have seized control.

Serhiy Astakhov, an aide to the border guards' commander, said there were now 30,000 Russian soldiers in Crimea, compared to the 11,000 permanently based with the Russian Black Sea fleet in the port of Sevastopol before the crisis.

Putin denies that the forces with no national insignia that are surrounding Ukrainian troops in their bases are under Moscow's command, although their vehicles have Russian military plates. The West has ridiculed his assertion.

The most serious east-west confrontation since the end of the Cold War - resulting from the overthrow last month of President Viktor Yanukovich after violent protests in Kiev - escalated on Thursday when Crimea's parliament, dominated by ethnic Russians, voted to join Russia. The region's government set a referendum for March 16 - in just nine days' time.

European Union leaders and Obama denounced the referendum as illegitimate, saying it would violate Ukraine's constitution.

The head of Russia's upper house of parliament said after meeting visiting Crimean lawmakers on Friday that Crimea had a right to self-determination, and ruled out any risk of war between "the two brotherly nations".

Obama announced the first sanctions against Russia on Thursday since the start of the crisis, ordering visa bans and asset freezes against so far unidentified people deemed responsible for threatening Ukraine's sovereignty. Russia warned that it would retaliate against any sanctions.

Japan endorsed the Western position that the actions of Russia, whose forces have seized control of the Crimean peninsula, constitute "a threat to international peace and security", after Obama spoke to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

China, often a Russian ally in blocking Western moves in the U.N. Security Council, was more cautious, saying that economic sanctions were not the best way to solve the crisis and avoiding comment on the legality of a Crimean referendum on secession.

GUERRILLA WAR?

The EU, Russia's biggest economic partner and energy customer, adopted a three-stage plan to try to force a negotiated solution but stopped short of immediate sanctions.

The Russian Foreign Ministry responded angrily on Friday, calling the EU decision to freeze talks on visa-free travel and on a broad new pact governing Russia-EU ties "extremely unconstructive".

Senior Ukrainian opposition politician Yulia Tymoshenko, freed from prison after Yanukovich's ouster, met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Dublin and appealed for immediate EU sanctions against Russia, warning that Crimea might otherwise slide into a guerrilla war.

Brussels and Washington rushed to strengthen the new authorities in economically shattered Ukraine, announcing both political and financial assistance. The regional director of the International Monetary Fund said talks with Kiev on a loan agreement were going well and praised the new government's openness to economic reform and transparency.

The European Commission has said Ukraine could receive up to 11 billion euros ($15 billion) in the next couple of years provided it reaches agreement with the IMF, which requires painful economic reforms like ending gas subsidies.

Promises of billions of dollars in Western aid for the Kiev government, and the perception that Russian troops are not likely to go beyond Crimea into other parts of Ukraine, have helped reverse a rout in the local hryvnia currency.

In the past two days it has traded above 9.0 to the dollar for the first time since the Crimea crisis began last week. Local dealers said emergency currency restrictions imposed last week were also supporting the hryvnia.

Russian gas monopoly Gazprom said Ukraine had not paid its $440 million gas bill for February, bringing its arrears to $1.89 billion and hinted it could turn off the taps as it did in 2009, when a halt in Russian deliveries to Ukraine reduced supplies to Europe during a cold snap.

In Moscow, a huge crowd gathered near the Kremlin at a government-sanctioned rally and concert billed as being "in support of the Crimean people".

Pop stars took to the stage and demonstrators held signs with slogans such as "Crimea is Russian land", "We don't trade our people for money" and "We believe in Putin".

IMPORTANT DIFFERENCES

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said no one in the civilised world would recognise the result of the "so-called referendum" in Crimea.

He repeated Kiev's willingness to negotiate with Russia if Moscow pulls its additional troops out of Crimea and said he had requested a telephone call with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

But Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov ridiculed calls for Russia to join an international "contact group" with Ukraine proposed by the West to negotiate an end to the crisis, saying they "make us smile", Russian news agencies reported.

Despite the Kremlin's tough words, demonstrators who have remained encamped in Kiev's central Independence Square to defend the revolution that ousted Yanukovich said they did not believe Crimea would be allowed to secede.

Alexander Zaporozhets, 40, from central Ukraine's Kirovograd region, put his faith in international pressure.

"I don't think the Russians will be allowed to take Crimea from us: you can't behave like that to an independent state. We have the support of the whole world. But I think we are losing time. While the Russians are preparing, we are just talking."

Unarmed military observers from the pan-European Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe were blocked from entering Crimea for a second day in a row on Friday, the OSCE said on Twitter.

A U.N. special envoy who travelled to the regional capital Simferopol was surrounded by pro-Russian protesters and forced to leave on Wednesday. The United Nations said it had sent its assistant secretary-general for human rights, Ivan Simonovic, to Kiev to conduct a preliminary humans rights assessment.

Ukrainian television was switched off in Crimea on Thursday and replaced with Russian state channels. The streets largely belong to people who support Moscow's rule, some of whom have become increasingly aggressive in the past week, harassing journalists and occasional pro-Kiev protesters.

Part of the Crimea's 2 million population opposes Moscow's rule, including members of the region's ethnic Russian majority. The last time Crimeans were asked, in 1991, they voted narrowly for independence along with the rest of Ukraine.

"This announcement that we are already part of Russia provokes nothing but tears," said Tatyana, 41, an ethnic Russian. "With all these soldiers here, it is like we are living in a zoo. Everyone fully understands this is an occupation." (Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Luke Baker and Martin Santa in Brussels, Steve Holland and Jeff Mason in Washington, Lina Kushch in Donetsk and Pavel Polityuk in Kiev; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Giles Elgood and Philippa Fletcher)

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) set up a final vote Thursday on a bill that would provide Ukraine with up to billion in loan guarantees and impose targeted sanctions against Russian officials.

Reid made the announcement Tuesday after dropping a controversial provision from the Senate bill that would have boosted the U.S. quota at the International Monetary Fund. Republicans in both chambers of Congress opposed the IMF reforms, which were specifically requested by the White House to increase Ukraine's borrowing capabilities at the institution.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said earlier Tuesday that Republicans would still want to vote on a number of amendments, but the IMF language was the major sticking point. Without it, the Ukraine aid package is expected to pass both the Senate and the House without much drama or delay.

--Sabrina Siddiqui

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From the Associated Press:

Authorities in a pro-Russian separatist region of Moldova claim to have brought down a Ukrainian drone on a reconnaissance mission.

NovostiPMR, the news agency of Trans-Dniester says Tuesday that the region's intelligence agency downed the drone on March 23.

The region broke away from Moldova in 1990. There are 1,500 Russian troops stationed there guarding hundreds of tons of weapons.

According to the agency, the drone was "launched from Ukrainian territory by people close to the Ukrainian Security Service and the Defense Ministry."

It said the plane illegally crossed into Trans-Dniester violating its air space. It added that the authorities in the region reserved the right to use "all available methods" to defend the territory which is not internationally recognized but is supported by Russia.

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Reuters reports:

Russian forces appeared to be attempting to take over the last military ship controlled by Ukraine in Crimea on Tuesday after a Ukrainian military spokesman reported explosions in its vicinity and helicopters approaching the vessel.

Russian forces armed with stun grenades and automatic weapons have seized ships and military bases from the last remaining Ukrainian troops in Crimea in recent days as part of Russia's largely bloodless annexation of the region.

Kiev, which calls Russia's annexation of Crimea illegal, ordered its remaining forces to withdraw for their own safety on Monday, but not all troops have yet left the Black Sea peninsula and some ships have been prevented from leaving.

"Around 1900 (1600 GMT) there were several explosions from the direction of the minesweeper Cherkasy in the Donuzlav bay," Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov told Reuters.

"Some Mi-35 helicopter gunships were observed hovering in the area. Speedboats and a tug were seen approaching Cherkasy," he said.

On Monday Cherkasy attempted without success to break to the open sea through a blockade at the entrance to the inlet. The Russian navy blocked the route earlier this month by scuttling three hulks in the channel.

Seleznyov said he was unable to confirm whether Russian troops had boarded the ship.

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From Reuters:

Russia's military staged training exercises on Tuesday in Transdniestria, a breakaway sliver of Moldova that is a focus of tension following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.

NATO's top military commander said on Sunday he was worried that Russia might have its eye on Transdniestria, a largely Russian-speaking region that borders western Ukraine, after seizing Crimea, which has a narrow ethnic Russian majority.

The Interfax news agency quoted a spokesman for Russia's Western Military District, Colonel Oleg Kochetkov, as saying that Russian forces stationed in Transdniestria had "conducted an anti-terrorism drill and practiced operations to rebuff an attack on their military base".

Transdniestria, with a population of half a million, has run its own affairs since 1992 after fighting a brief war against the Moldovan government over fears that it might join Romania after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Russia has a permanent garrison of peacekeepers there.

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Ukraine's Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed, in something of a Shermanesque statement, that the country will not develop nuclear weapons, one day after the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs seized on a proposal by some Ukrainian MPs to leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

"Ukraine has not planned, is not planning and is not going to plan to resume its nuclear status," a spokesman for the agency said at a press briefing.

Earlier this month, several opposition MPs introduced a draft bill to withdraw Ukraine from the NPT. Russia's Foreign Ministry seized on it, saying "the dysfunctional new Kiev authorities may pose a threat to the security of Ukrainian nuclear sites under the current Ukrainian circumstances," in a statement.
"We do not trust attempts of the Ukrainian delegate to dissociate from this position. The NPT is in serious danger."

Ukraine, which suddenly became the world's third-largest nuclear state after the collapse of the Soviet Union, gave its nuclear arsenal back to Russia for disposal under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in exchange for security assurances from Russia that it would respect Ukraine's territorial integrity.

--Luke Johnson

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The world's industrialized nations have turned their back on Russia, following Moscow's annexation of Crimea.

Though the G8 cannot expel its members, countries can refuse a member permission to attend, effectively expelling them.

With jitters in the east of Europe about further Russian incursion, and wariness in China, the state of world diplomacy could look very different by 2015.

HuffPost UK has asked military and international relations experts on five scenarios that could occur now Russia looks increasingly isolated, and as the West looks impotent.

Read here what they predict.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may drop a controversial reform to the U.S. share at the International Monetary Fund from the Ukraine aid package, according to Senate leadership aides.

The provision was requested by President Barack Obama and Ukrainian leaders, but faces widespread opposition from Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that his members would not support the aid bill unless the IMF language was dropped.

A Senate leadership aide said removing the provision is now "under consideration in order to move the bill." In exchange, Republicans would drop their demand to delay a Treasury Department rule that cracks down on the political activities of nonprofits, known as 501(c)(4)s.

The House of Representatives passed its own legislation providing aid to Ukraine earlier this month without the IMF reforms, and planned to move on a sanctions bill that also left the issue untouched. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said boosting U.S. funds at the IMF has "nothing to do with Ukraine," and his aides indicated they would not have enough votes to move the Senate bill through the lower chamber in its current form.

The Obama administration and Senate Democrats have been making the case that ratifying the IMF reforms, which were agreed upon in 2010, is critical to Ukraine's borrowing capabilities in a time of crisis. Still, some House Democrats acknowledged that the White House was complicating the process by renewing debate over a contentious issue when providing aid expeditiously is of the utmost importance.

--Sabrina Siddiqui

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President Barack Obama dismissed the notion that former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney was correct in saying that Russia was "our number one geopolitical foe" Tuesday, in a response to a question from Jonathan Karl of ABC News. He said that Russia was merely a "regional power" that was acting out of "weakness."

"Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength, but out of weakness. Ukraine has been a country in which Russia had enormous influence for decades, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and we have considerable influence on our neighbors," he said. "We generally don't need to invade them in order to have a strong cooperative relationship with them."

--Luke Johnson

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At a press conference in Europe, U.S. President Barack Obama sidestepped a question on whether he "misread" Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he wasn't so interested in his motivations.

"With respect to President Putin's motivation, I think there has been a lot of speculation. I am less interested in motivation and more interested in the facts and the principles that not only the United States but the entire international community are looking to uphold."

He added that the United States is "concerned" about further encroachment by Russia into Ukraine.

--Luke Johnson

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From Reuters:

Ukraine, its economy seriously weakened by months of political turmoil and mismanagement, is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund for a loan package of -20 billion, its finance minister said on Tuesday.

The minister, Oleksander Shlapak, speaking to reporters before a government meeting, said the ministry foresaw continued slowdown and stagnation in the economy with it contracting by 3 per cent in 2014.

Referring to talks now going on with the IMF, he said: "We are successfully heading towards concluding a programme. I think we shall receive (what we seek). This sum is from 15 to 20 billion dollars."

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Most Americans do not think that the United States has a responsibility to intervene in Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea, a CBS News poll released Tuesday found. 61 percent think that the United States isn't obliged to do anything while 32 percent think it is. 65 percent -- including majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents -- think that the U.S. should not provide military aid to Ukraine, which it has thus far refused.

--Luke Johnson

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Russian Deputy Economic Development Minister Andrei Klepach said Monday that capital flight will reach billion in first quarter 2014.

In comparison, capital flight for all of 2013 was just under billion. The minister also expected that growth for the first quarter will be "near zero."

"Unfortunately the investment slump is continuing. I'm not ready to say how long it will continue," he told reporters.

The rate of flight would be the highest since the 2008 financial crisis.

The forecast is yet another sign that the Crimean invasion is seriously damaging the Russian economy. The Russian stock index MICEX has dropped 13.2 percent on the year, compared to a 5.7 drop for the MSCI emerging market index.

--Luke Johnson

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The White House released a statement from the U.S. and Ukraine on nuclear proliferation today. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was the third-largest nuclear weapons state. It gave up the weapons to Russia in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in exchange for security assurances from Russia.

Read the full statement:

On the occasion of the third Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, the United States and Ukraine today reaffirm their strategic partnership and emphasize the important role of nuclear nonproliferation in that relationship. The United States values its 20-year partnership with Ukraine on these issues. Our nonproliferation partnership dates from Ukraine’s 1994 decision to remove all nuclear weapons from its territory and to accede to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as a non-nuclear-weapon state. In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the United States, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland welcomed these Ukrainian actions, and they reaffirmed their commitment to Ukraine to respect the independence, sovereignty, and existing borders of Ukraine. The United States government reaffirms that commitment today to the new Ukrainian government and the people of Ukraine, including in Crimea. The United States government condemns Russia’s failure to abide by its commitments under the Budapest Memorandum with its unilateral military actions in Ukraine. Russia’s actions undermine the foundation of the global security architecture and endanger European peace and security. Ukraine and the United States emphasize that they will not recognize Russia's illegal attempt to annex Crimea. Crimea is an integral part of Ukraine. The United States will continue to help Ukraine affirm its sovereignty and territorial integrity. As the people of Ukraine work to restore unity, peace, and security to their country, the United States will stand by their side.
The United States and Ukraine reiterate their commitment to upholding their nuclear nonproliferation commitments. The United States recognizes the importance of the 2012 removal of all highly enriched uranium from Ukraine. This removal again highlighted Ukraine’s leadership in nuclear security and nonproliferation, as we collectively work together to secure the world’s vulnerable nuclear material. As part of its support for this effort, the United States committed in 2010 to work with Ukraine to construct a Neutron Source Facility at the Kharkiv Institute for Physics and Technology. This month construction of the Neutron Source Facility was completed. The facility, equipped with the most up-to-date technology to operate at the highest safety standards, provides Ukraine with new research capabilities and the ability to produce industrial and medical isotopes for the benefit of the Ukrainian people.

This state of the art facility is representative of the modern, European state the Government of Ukraine is committed to building. To build on this important cooperation, the United States will continue to provide technical support for the Neutron Source Facility as Ukraine completes the necessary final equipment installation, testing, and start-up to make the facility fully operational as soon as practical.

This successful effort reflects broad U.S.-Ukrainian cooperation on nuclear security and nonproliferation. Our countries recently extended the U.S.-Ukraine Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Umbrella Agreement and the U.S.-Ukraine Agreement Concerning Operational Safety Enhancements, Risk Reduction Measures, and Nuclear Safety Regulation for Civilian Nuclear Facilities in Ukraine.

The United States and Ukraine intend to continue to partner to prevent nuclear proliferation by improving Ukraine’s ability to detect nuclear materials on its borders, to provide physical protection at sites with nuclear or radioactive materials, and to maintain an adequate export control system in order to help realize the goals of the Nuclear Security Summits.

--Luke Johnson

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President Barack Obama and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev spoke today at The Hague, according to a White House pool report. There were no formal remarks between the two men.

Nazarbayev said in a phone call that he "treats with understanding the position of Russia" on Crimea, which appears to be a very delicate diplomatic turn of phrase. Some have speculated of a Crimean-style scenario in Kazakhstan, which has a large minority of Russian speakers.

A joint statement between the two leaders contained no mention of Crimea, instead focusing on nonproliferation.

--Luke Johnson

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The Associated Press is now reporting that Ukraine's parliament has accepted the defense minister's resignation, after rejecting it earlier.

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From Reuters:

WASHINGTON, March 24 (Reuters) - A bill providing economic assistance to Ukraine and imposing sanctions over Russia's seizure of Crimea cleared a procedural hurdle in the U.S. Senate on Monday, as backers attempted to win passage of the legislation later this week.

By a vote of 78-17, the Senate laid the groundwork for debating a bill that would back a billion loan guarantee for the government in Kiev, provide 0 million in aid for Ukraine and neighboring countries and require sanctions on Russians and Ukrainians responsible for corruption, human rights abuses or undermining stability in Ukraine.

Full story here.

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Britain's Foreign Minister William Hague said the countries of the G7 have agreed to discuss ways to reduce European dependence on Russian energy supplies in coming weeks and months.

Reuters reports:

Hague said the decision to hold the G8 meeting without Russia this year is "of course a huge blow to the G8, it means there is no G8 this year. The president of the United States was very clear in the meeting that it will then be hard to revive that in the immediate future."

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Russian news agency RIA Novosti reports that according to a Crimean official, all Ukrainian military units have left Crimea, leaving the military bases in the region under Russian control.

“All Ukrainian military personnel have either joined Russia or are leaving Crimea,” first deputy prime minister, Rustam Temirgaliyev, reportedly said.


Read the full report here.

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From the Associated Press:

Ukraine is hoping the United Nations General Assembly will adopt a resolution later this week reaffirming the country's unity and territorial integrity and underscoring that the referendum in Crimea that led to its annexation by Russia "has no validity."

The draft resolution, circulated Monday to the 193 assembly members and obtained by The Associated Press, never mentions Russia by name but calls on all countries not to recognize "any alteration of the status" of Crimea.

It also urges all parties to immediately pursue the peaceful resolution of the situation in Ukraine and exercise restraint.

The resolution is expected to be put to a vote at a General Assembly meeting on Thursday.

Unlike the Security Council, where veto-wielding Russia has blocked any action on Ukraine, the General Assembly has no vetoes.

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