NATO sees no Russian troop withdrawal as Moscow hits Ukrainian economy

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – NATO said on Tuesday it could not confirm the withdrawal of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border, as Russia exerted further pressure on a faltering Ukrainian economy with a painful rise in oil prices. gas.

Western alliance foreign ministers gathered in Brussels to try to forge a response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea last month, amid tentative signs of easing in the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.

Ukraine’s parliament has responded to one of Moscow’s key demands by voting unanimously to disarm all vigilante groups that have sprung up across the country during its political crisis that first erupted over an alliance European abandoned at the end of November.

But tensions remained high more than two weeks after Moscow officially annexed Crimea and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned he could not confirm that Russia had walked away from the Ukrainian border, as announced by the Kremlin.

“That’s not what we’ve seen,” Rasmussen said as NATO ministers gathered for two days of talks, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, who flew between layovers for the shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East.

Ukraine and the United States have accused Russia of mustering thousands of troops near the border and expressed concern over Moscow’s intention to seize areas of southeastern Ukraine that are home to large populations of ethnic Russians, following the takeover of Crimea.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office said Russian President Vladimir Putin personally informed her of the troop withdrawal in a phone conversation and said on Tuesday she had ‘no reason’ to doubt her word. .

Ukraine also reported on Monday that Russian troops were leaving the sensitive area, adding that it appeared to coincide with a phone call Putin unexpectedly made to US President Barack Obama on Friday.

With assurances from Moscow, NATO seems to be backing down from an idea put forward to strengthen the military presence of the alliance in the countries bordering Russia, preferring for the moment to give more time to the talks.

“I think everyone realizes that the best way forward is through political and diplomatic dialogue,” Rasmussen said, adding that NATO was “very committed to providing effective defense and protection of our allies. “.

A countermeasure apparently discarded for now is the idea of ​​establishing permanent military bases in NATO countries bordering Russia.

The move would be highly controversial for Moscow, reversing an informal agreement reached when NATO expanded east to include former Warsaw Pact countries keen to break away from years of Soviet rule.

But Dutch Foreign Minister Frank Timmermans said that at the moment “we don’t need NATO troops on the border with Russia”, adding that there was “no need sudden movements”.

The cautious line could come as a disappointment to eastern NATO members – such as the Baltics and Poland – who were due to argue for a tougher stance against Russia at the meeting.

Poland “would welcome all forces” on its territory, said Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski.

War games

Ahead of the NATO talks, the German foreign minister said he saw no quick solution to the crisis, nor the likelihood of Ukraine joining NATO.

“We cannot promise that we will be able to resolve this conflict in the short term,” said Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but it formed a “distinctive partnership” with the Alliance in 1997 and has since held joint exercises with its member states.

Kiev’s parliament on Tuesday approved a new round of joint military exercises with the alliance that would put US troops in close proximity to Russian forces in the annexed Crimean peninsula.

“This is a good opportunity to develop our armed forces,” said acting defense minister Mykhailo Koval.

The exercises would partly occupy a 25-day period between July and October around two ports in Odessa and “along the waters of the Black Sea”.

Responding to a key demand posed by Russia, Ukraine’s parliament also voted on Tuesday to disarm all vigilante groups that had sprung up across the country during its political crisis.

The move came after a member of the Ukrainian radical nationalist group Pravy Sektor opened fire on Monday night in central Kiev, injuring three.

Gazprom pressures Ukraine

The crisis comes at a particularly critical time in Kyiv as Ukrainian politicians vie for the post ahead of presidential elections on May 25 following the fall of President Viktor Yanukovych.

And with Moscow able to use gas as leverage, Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller said Ukraine would now pay $385.5 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas from the previous cut rate of $268. $5.

“The discount will no longer apply,” he said in a statement. “This is due to the inability of the Ukrainian side to pay the debts of 2013 and to make full payments for the ongoing deliveries.”

The cut had been agreed between Yanukovych and President Vladimir Putin in December 2013 as a form of financial aid to the old regime.

The price hike – although widely expected – is another blow to the Ukrainian economy which needs an international bailout to stave off the risk of default. (AFP)

Christi C. Elwood