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Russian Forces Storm Ukrainian Naval Headquarters In Crimea

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By Aleksandar Vasovic and Maria Kiselyova

(Reuters) - The United States warned Moscow it was on a "dark path" to isolation on Wednesday after Russian troops backed by unarmed volunteers stormed Ukraine's naval headquarters in the Crimean port of Sevastopol and raised their flag.

The dramatic seizure came as Russia and the West dug in for a long confrontation over Moscow's annexation of Crimea, with the United States and Europe groping for ways to increase pressure on a defiant Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"As long as Russia continues on this dark path, they will face increasing political and economic isolation," said U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, referring to reports of armed attacks against Ukrainian military personnel in Crimea.

Biden was in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, part of a quick trip to reassure Baltic allies worried about what an emboldened, aggressive Russia might mean for their nations. Lithuania, along with Estonia and Latvia, are NATO members.

"There is an attempt, using brutal force, to redraw borders of the European states and to destroy the post-war architecture of Europe," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said.

The United Nations said Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will push for a peaceful solution to the crisis when he meets Putin in Moscow on Thursday and when he travels to Kiev on Friday.

Russian lawmakers raced to ratify a treaty making the Ukrainian region part of Russia by the end of the week, despite threats of further sanctions from Washington and Brussels.

The Russian military moved swiftly to neutralize any threat of armed resistance in Crimea.

"This morning they stormed the compound. They cut the gates open, but I heard no shooting," said Oleksander Balanyuk, a captain in the navy, walking out of the compound in his uniform and carrying his belongings.

"This thing should have been solved politically. Now all I can do is stand here at the gate. There is nothing else I can do," he told Reuters, appearing ashamed and downcast.

Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said the commander of the Ukrainian navy, Admiral Serhiy Haiduk, was driven away by what appeared to be Russian special forces.

MIXED FEELINGS

Russia sent thousands of soldiers to Crimea in the buildup to a weekend referendum in which the Russian-majority region voted overwhelmingly to leave Ukraine and join Moscow, reflecting national loyalties and hopes of higher wages.

But there is unease among pro-Ukrainian Crimeans who have complained about the heavy armed presence across the region.

"I was born here, my family is here, I have a job here and I am not going anywhere unless there is an all-out military conflict," said Viktor, a 23-year-old salesman. "It is my home but things will not be the same any more."

A few hundred meters away, the local authorities attached new, Russian letters spelling "State Council of the Crimean Republic" on the building of the local assembly.

Putin said his move to annex Crimea was justified by "fascists" in Kiev who overthrew pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovich after deadly street protests last month.

Ukraine and Western governments have dismissed the referendum as a sham, and say there is no justification for Putin's actions.

Yanukovich enraged many Ukrainians by turning his back on closer ties with Europe to sign agreements on economic integration with former Soviet overlord Russia.

GERMANY MAKES MOVE

Germany's cabinet approved EU plans for closer political cooperation with Ukraine, a government source said, clearing the way for Chancellor Angela Merkel to sign part of a so-called association agreement at an EU summit later this week.

The 28-member bloc is expected to sign a more far-reaching trade accord with Ukraine later.

But maintaining aggressive rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War, Russia accused Western states of violating a pledge to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and political independence under a 1994 security assurance agreement, saying they had "indulged a coup d'etat" that ousted Yanukovich.

Moscow, which has said it will retaliate for so far largely symbolic Western sanctions targeting Russian officials, announced on Wednesday it was closing its military facilities to a European security watchdog for the rest of the year.

The Russian Defense Ministry was quoted as saying the signatories of a 2011 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe agreement had exhausted their quotas to inspect Russian military facilities and a planned inspection in the coming days would be the last.

FURTHER SANCTIONS?

Biden said in Warsaw on Tuesday the United States may run more ground and naval military exercises to help Baltic states near Russia beef up their capacity after what he called Putin's "land grab" in Ukraine.

The Truxtun, a U.S. guided-missile destroyer started a one-day military exercise with the Bulgarian and Romanian navies in the Black Sea on Wednesday, a U.S. Naval Forces official said.

Washington and Brussels said further sanctions would follow the visa bans and asset freezes imposed so far on a handful of Russian and Crimean officials, drawing derision from Moscow.

On a visit to Japan, which has joined the Western chorus of condemnation of Moscow's action, close Putin ally Igor Sechin, CEO of Russian oil major Rosneft, said expanding sanctions would only aggravate the crisis.

European Union leaders will consider widening the number of people targeted by personal sanctions when they hold a regular summit in Thursday and Friday, diplomats said, as well as signing the political part of an association agreement with Ukraine's interim government.

EU officials say they have identified more than 100 potential targets. Some media reports say Sechin and the head of Russian gas monopoly Gazprom are on the wider list.

But some EU officials are wary of moving too fast towards much tougher sanctions, both due to the risk of self-inflicted injury to Europe's convalescent economy and out of concern not to exhaust the West's toolbox of non-military measures.

France has said it is considering suspending a contract to supply two helicopter carriers to the Russian military, the first of which is due to be delivered later this year. French officials say they expect Britain, in return, to close its gates and bank vaults to oligarchs close to Putin.

In a rousing patriotic speech to Russian lawmakers denouncing what he called the West's hypocrisy and double standards, Putin said on Tuesday that Crimea was historically Russian and was returning home.

After signing a treaty to make the Ukrainian region part of the Russian Federation, he told a flag-waving rally in Red Square beneath the Kremlin walls, near where Soviet politburo leaders once took the salute at May Day parades, that Crimea has returned to "home port".

(Additional reporting by Mike Collett-White and Gabriela Baczynska in Simferopol and Elizabeth Piper and Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Writing by Mike Collett-White; editing by Anna Willard)

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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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Around the Web

Pro-Russians storm Ukrainian navy base in Crimea - CNN.com

Ukraine Officials Denied Crimea Entry; Base Taken - ABC News

Crimean forces storm Ukrainian navy HQ - USA Today

Crimea protesters storm Ukrainian Navy base in Sevastopol - RT.com

Crimean forces storm Ukrainian navy headquarters