Nato meets to seek solutions over Ukraine crisis

US may vote as soon as today on €1bn-plus package of aid for Ukraine’s government

A mural of the  map of Crimea filled in with the Russian national colours on a street in Moscow in recent days.  Photograph: Artur Bainozarov/Reuters

A mural of the map of Crimea filled in with the Russian national colours on a street in Moscow in recent days. Photograph: Artur Bainozarov/Reuters

 

Nato is to meet today to seek ways to further ease tensions with Russia over Ukraine a day after President Vladimir Putin began withdrawing forces stationed on his neighbour’s border.

Foreign ministers from North Atlantic Treaty Organisation countries are convening in Brussels to discuss the fallout from Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Mr Putin told German chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday that he’d ordered a partial pullout of troops from near Ukraine’s border, and Russia’s defence ministry said some were returning to their bases after drills had ended.

Discussions between the top US and Russian diplomats have continued amid the worst standoff between Russia and Nato countries since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Mr Putin told Dr Merkel of the plans to pull back some troops in a phone call, the German leader’s office said in a statement in Berlin. The leaders also discussed “possible further steps to stabilise the situation in Ukraine and in Transnistria”, the breakaway pro-Russian region of Moldova on Ukraine’s southwest border, according to her office.

The Russian president’s office said in a statement that the two leaders agreed to continue close co-operation, adding Mr Putin stressed the need for “constitutional reforms” in Ukraine that would also reflect the interests of Russian speakers concentrated in the country’s east.

Ukraine has spurned Kremlin demands that it grant its regions greater powers.

In Russia, a motorised battalion was heading back to its headquarters in the Samara region on the Volga River after exercises near the Ukrainian frontier, the Interfax news service cited the country’s defence ministry as saying.

A partial Russian withdrawal would be a “welcome preliminary step” if reports of the troop moves are accurate, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in an email.

Defence secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon he could not confirm whether Russia was pulling its troops back.

Aid package

In Washington, the US House may vote as soon as today on a package of aid to Ukraine’s government. The measure, passed by the Senate last week, includes about $1 billion in loan guarantees and allows $150 million in direct assistance to Ukraine.

It also would impose sanctions on Ukrainians and Russians deemed responsible for corruption and violence.

Shrugging off sanctions from the US and its European allies, Mr Putin has justified Russia’s takeover of Crimea as righting a historical wrong that split the region off from Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed.

US secretary of state John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, discussed Ukraine in a telephone call yesterday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. Russia provided no details of the conversation, which took place a day after the two diplomats held four hours of talks in Paris.

At the Paris meeting, the secretary of state demanded that Russia pull its forces back from the frontier, saying they were “creating a climate of fear and intimidation in Ukraine”.

Mr Kerry, who’s scheduled to attend today’s Nato meeting after a stop in the Middle East, expressed concern that what the US estimated to be 40,000 troops massing on Ukraine’s border might signal Russia was ready to invade. “Any real progress in Ukraine must include a pullback of the very large Russian force,” Kerry told a news conference.

Mr Lavrov said that while he and Mr Kerry expressed differing views on the reasons behind the crisis, they were in agreement on “the need to seek common ground on the diplomatic path for an exit from this situation that will meet the interests of the Ukrainian people”, according to Russia’s foreign ministry.

Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev yesterday paid the first visit to Crimea by a top official since Putin annexed the Black Sea peninsula. He pledged to create a special economic zone in the region and to raise state salaries to the Russian average by July.

“No resident of Crimea or Sevastopol should lose anything as a result of joining Russia, they should only gain,” Mr Medvedev told a government meeting in the Crimean capital, Simferopol.

Granting citizenship

Russia is in the process of granting citizenship and contracts to 7,800 Crimean military personnel who asked to join Russian forces, deputy defence minister Nikolay Pankov said. “We’re not forcing anyone,” Mr Pankov said in an interview in Simferopol. “We’re not trying to convince anyone. We’re being genuine and respectful to everyone.”

Mr Medvedev’s trip without the agreement of Ukraine was “a crude violation of the existing norms in international communication,” Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebyinis said in televised remarks.

The ministry would monitor “such defiant provocation and anti-Ukrainian steps by the Russian Federation”, he said.

Acting Ukrainian president Oleksandr Turchynov dismissed the Kremlin’s demands for more regional autonomy in his country. “Russia’s leaders should deal with the problems of the Russian Federation, not Ukraine’s problems,” he said in a statement on his website.

Bloomberg