Monday, August 11, 2014

Russia/Ukraine: 45,000 Russian Troops on Ukrainian Border, Aim to Neutralize Ukrainian Offensive

According to Reuters, President Vladimir Putin said on Monday (August 11) Russia is sending an aid convoy to eastern Ukraine despite urgent Western warnings against using humanitarian help as a pretext for an invasion.

With Ukraine reporting Russia has massed 45,000 troops on its border, NATO said there was a "high probability" that Moscow could intervene militarily in the country's east, where Kiev's forces are closing in on pro-Russian separatists.

Western countries believe that Putin, who has whipped up the passions of Russians with a nationalist campaign in state-controlled media since annexing Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, could now send his forces into the east to head off a humiliating rebel defeat.

Thousands of people are believed to be short of water, electricity and medical aid due to the fighting, but US President Barack Obama told his Ukrainian counterpart that any Russian intervention without Kiev's consent would be unacceptable and violate international law. 

COMMENT: Once again, that seemingly is a classic and characteristic Obama Administration "schmooze" tactic designed to dodge the obvious.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso delivered a much blunter and more precise message directly to Putin in a telephone call on Monday (August 11). "President Barroso warned against any unilateral military actions in Ukraine, under any pretext, including humanitarian," the Commission said in a statement.

The Kremlin, on its own account of the conversation, made clear that Moscow would indeed send help to largely Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.

"It was noted that the Russian side, in collaboration with representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), is sending an aid convoy to Ukraine," the Kremlin statement said, without revealing when the convoy was going. 

"The practical details of this operation need to be clarified before this initiative can move forward," said Laurent Corbaz, head of ICRC operations for Europe and Central Asia.

According to UN agencies, more than 1,100 people have been killed including government forces, rebels and civilians in the four months since the separatists seized territory in the east and Kiev launched its crackdown.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko came out in support of an aid mission but made clear it had to be an international effort under the aegis of the ICRC, involving the European Union as well as Russia.

The White House quoted Obama as saying that any Russian intervention without the Ukrainian government's agreement would be "unacceptable" and a violation of international law.

Earlier, Kiev said it was in the "final stages" of recapturing the eastern city of Donetsk - the main base of the separatist rebels - in a battle that could mark a turning point in a conflict that has caused the biggest confrontation between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said there was no sign Russia had withdrawn the troops it had amassed on the Ukrainian border. Asked in a REUTERS interview how he rated the chances of Russian military intervention, Rasmussen said: "There is a high probability."

NATO fears Moscow would use any aid mission as a cover to save the rebels, who are fighting for control of two provinces under the banner of "New Russia", a term Putin has used for southern and eastern Ukraine, where Russian is predominantly spoken.

Ukraine appears to be pressing ahead with its offensive, undeterred by the presence of what NATO says are about 20,000 Russian troops massed on the nearby border for a potential ground invasion.

Kiev put the size of the Russian forces much higher. "As of 11 o'clock today (August 11), about 45,000 troops of the armed forces and internal forces of the Russian Federation are concentrated in border areas," Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told a briefing.

He said that Russian forces were supported by 160 tanks, 1,360 armored vehicles, 390 artillery systems, up to 150 Grad missile launchers, 192 fighter aircraft and 137 attack helicopters.

Fighting in recent weeks has focused on the route, near where Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crashed in July, killing all 298 people on board. Washington says the plane was almost certainly shot down accidentally by rebels using an advanced Russian missile. Moscow denies this charge.