Russia slams Washington for fuelling Ukraine crisis

Segei Lavrov. Geneva, 2009. [UN Photo/Flickr]

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov blamed the USA and some of their closest political friends in the EU and Ukraine for sowing discord between Ukraine and Russia and driving “a deep and wide wedge between Russia and Europe”.

In a move seen as an appeasement gesture to Russia, the European Commission decided on 12 September to delay the entering into force of its Association Agreement with Ukraine until the end of 2015. But apparently the Ukrainian leadership remains divided on its tactics vis-à-vis Russia.

Ukraine’s defence minister Valery Heletey said yesterday (14 September) that individual NATO countries were delivering weapons to his country to equip it to fight pro-Russian separatists and “stop” Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Heletey told a news conference he had discussed weapons deliveries in bilateral meetings with NATO defence ministers during a NATO summit in Wales on 4-5 September.

At the 4-5 September NATO summit in Wales officials from the alliance have said it will not send “lethal assistance” to non-member Ukraine but member states may do so.

Earlier this month, a senior Ukrainian official said Kyiv had agreed on the provision of weapons and military advisers from several members of the US-led alliance. Four of the five countries named, including the United States, denied this.

>> Read: NATO members deny ‘agreement’ to supply Ukraine with arms

“We reached agreements in closed talks, without media, about […] those weapons that we currently need,” said Heletey, who said Ukraine needed weapons “that could stop Putin”.

“I have no right to disclose any specific country we reached that agreement with. But the fact is that those weapons are already on the way to us – that’s absolutely true, I can officially tell you,” he said.

Heletey said about 3,500 Russian troops were now on Ukrainian territory with a further 25,000 massed on the Russian side of the joint border.

Fighting flared near an airport in eastern Ukraine on 13 September in breach of a fragile eight-day ceasefire as the prime minister accused Putin of planning to destroy his country.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said only membership of NATO would enable Ukraine to defend itself from external aggression.

Red line

But Russia made it plain that Ukraine’s neutrality is a red line not to be crossed.

Ukraine’s non-aligned status is “a basic issue” for Moscow and efforts in Kyiv to scrap it are an American-inspired bid to drive a wedge between Russia and Europe, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said on 13 September.

Lavrov, commenting on a draft law to change Kyiv’s military status, said neutrality “answers the interests of the Ukrainian people, the legitimate interests of all neighbours and partners of Ukraine, and also the interests of European security.”

The draft law, submitted to parliament last month by the government of Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, was also “a direct affront to the president of the country,” he said, implying President Petro Poroshenko did not support it.

>> Read: Ukraine to request NATO membership

Yatseniuk said at the time the bill aimed to “scrap the non-aligned status of the Ukrainian state and establish a course towards membership of NATO.”

This is not the first time that Russia hints that a major obstacle for the peace in Eastern Ukraine are Ukraine’s pro-NATO hardliners.

>> Read: Russia warns EU against Ukraine’s hardliners

“For us this is a basic issue,” Lavrov said in an interview with the Russian television channel TV Centre.

Lavrov blames USA

Yatseniuk “is undertaking efforts not in the interests of his own country,” Lavrov said, “but of those who want to sow discord between the Ukrainian and Russian peoples and drive a deep and wide wedge between Russia and Europe.

“That is firstly Washington – the US doesn’t hide the level of its engagement,” he said in the interview, as quoted by the news agency Itar-Tass.

Analysts say Russia’s policy towards Ukraine has been motivated largely by its hostility to possible future Ukrainian membership of NATO. Western governments have accused Russia of destabilizing its neighbour by annexing Crimea and sending Russian troops to back separatist rebels in two eastern regions.

Lavrov also rejected claims that Moscow wanted to create a pro-Russian statelet in eastern Ukraine as a buffer zone.

“I have heard […] that we are somehow interested in the creation of a “Second Transnistria”, some sort of buffer zone,” he said, referring to a breakaway province in Moldova that has been autonomous since a 1992 war.

“This is stupid,” he said. “To think we broke up Transnistria’s political settlement and therefore we now want to do the same in Ukraine can only be the product of a febrile brain counting on fooling the public.”

Yatsenyuk: Putin’s goal is ‘to take all of Ukraine’

Speaking at a conference in Kyiv attended by Ukrainian and European lawmakers and business leaders on 13 September, Yatseniuk made clear he did not view the ceasefire as the start of a sustainable peace process because of Putin’s ambitions.

“We are still in a stage of war and the key aggressor is the Russian Federation […] Putin wants another frozen conflict [in eastern Ukraine],” said Yatseniuk.

Yatseniuk said Putin would not be content only with Crimea – annexed by Moscow in March – and with Ukraine’s mainly Russian-speaking eastern region.

“His goal is to take all of Ukraine […] Russia is a threat to the global order and to the security of the whole of Europe.”

Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told a daily briefing that one soldier and 12 rebels had been killed in the past 24 hours, without specifying where they had died. That would bring the death toll among Ukrainian forces since the start of the ceasefire eight days ago to six.

Humanitarian aid

On Saturday, about 100 Russian trucks arrived in the war-ravaged eastern city of Luhansk, part of a convoy sent to deliver 1,800 tonnes of humanitarian aid to residents.

It is the second such Russian aid convoy and it passed the border without any major difficulty. The first convoy in August was denounced by Ukraine and its Western allies for crossing the border without Kyiv’s permission.

The Ukraine conflict has triggered several waves of Western sanctions against Russia, most recently on 12 September. The new measures, branded by Putin “a bit strange” in view of the ceasefire, target banks and oil companies.

Russia, which has already introduced bans on a range of U.S. and European food imports, signalled it would respond with further sanctions of its own against Western interests.

Yatseniuk said on Saturday the latest sanctions posed a big threat to the Russian economy.

“It is bluff [by Russia] to say it does not care about the sanctions,” he said, noting that Russia relied heavily on its energy sector and some of the sanctions targeted its oil firms.

Yatseniuk defended his government’s efforts, despite the conflict, to tackle rampant corruption and overhaul the creaking economy, adding: “It is very hard to attract investors when you have Russian tanks and artillery in your country.”

His centre-right People’s Front party is expected to do well in a parliamentary election on 26 October.

The conflict is taking a heavy toll on Ukraine’s already battered economy, which is now being supported by a $17 billion (€12 billion) loan package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The economy could shrink by as much as 10% this year, the head of Ukraine’s central bank, Valeria Hontareva, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying on 13 September, much more than the 6.5% decrease previously forecast by the IMF.

Yatseniuk praised a decision on 12 September to delay the implementation of a new trade pact with the European Union until the end of 2015. He said it prolonged unilateral trade benefits now enjoyed by Ukrainian firms in the EU while maintaining modest customs duties on European products entering Ukraine.

A victory for Russia?

Some have seen the decision to postpone the implementation of the deal as a diplomatic victory for Russia, which is opposed to closer economic ties between Kyiv and the EU, but Yatseniuk said it would be good for Ukraine’s own economy.

“We got a grace period. The EU opened its markets but Ukraine is still protected, so for Ukraine this is not a bad deal,” he said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Danylo Lubkivsky submitted his resignation, saying: “[The delay] sends the wrong signal – to the aggressor, to our allies and, above all, to Ukrainian citizens.”

NATO leaders made clear at a summit in Wales that their military alliance would not use force to defend Ukraine, which is not a member, but planned tougher economic sanctions to try to change Russian behaviour in the former Soviet republic.

>> Read: NATO summit pledges ‘tangible’ support to Ukraine

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who was present at the 4-5 September NATO summit, also took centre stage at the 30 August EU summit, where he said that the EU's agenda from now on would largely revolve around Ukraine.

>> Read: Poroshenko: The EU's agenda now revolves around Ukraine

At the summit, some EU leaders reportedly spoke about the need of military assistance to Ukraine, many demanded tougher sanctions, but reportedly Slovakia, Hungary and Cyprus made it clear they oppose further sanctions which they claim would hurt their countries more than Russia.

The new EU sanctions that became effective on 12 September would limit access by Russian oil companies to funds. Similar sanctions from the United States adopted on the same day hit Russia's biggest bank and an arms maker, and bar U.S. firms from helping five big Russian oil companies explore hard to reach deposits.

Moscow has already responded to sanctions by banning the import of most Western food. It said it could take further measures and might appeal to the World Trade Organisation.

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