Russia threat to cut diplomatic ties with Ukraine over ‘attack’

Moscow deploys air defence system to Black Sea as tension escalates in Crimea

Russia has threatened to sever diplomatic relations with Ukraine over an alleged incursion by a pro-Kiev sabotage unit into Crimea, where Moscow has further boosted security with the deployment of a new air defence system.

The Kremlin accused Ukraine’s pro-western leaders of using “terror” tactics in what it claimed was an attack last weekend that killed two Russian servicemen near the de-facto border between Kiev-controlled territory and Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.

Russian president Vladimir Putin and other top officials said the alleged attack would not go unpunished, sparking fears of an escalation in violence in Ukraine and prompting Kiev's US and EU allies to call for calm.

"I hope that's not how it works out, but if there's no other way left to influence the situation, then the president could probably take that decision," Russia's prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said when he was asked if diplomatic ties with Kiev could be cut as a result of the alleged incursion.

“In my view, what happened is undoubtedly a crime committed against the Russian state and the people of Russia living in one of its territories – Crimea.”

Separatist insurgency

Several Ukrainian officials brushed off the threat, saying diplomatic ties were already effectively frozen between Kiev and Moscow due to the latter’s annexation of Crimea and continuing support for a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

They also dismissed again claims of an attack in Crimea, which Ukraine’s military intelligence agency said were part of a bid to throw a smokescreen around a deadly firefight that erupted between Russian units due to mistaken identity; other Kiev officials said the battle broke out because the Russian servicemen were drunk.

Ukraine denied that two of its citizens whom Russia arrested in Crimea were part of a sabotage group and called on Moscow to allow the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to visit the men. The request that was rejected.

Russia and Ukraine announced war games close to Crimea on Thursday, while Ukraine also raised the level of its troops’ combat readiness near the peninsula and in eastern regions where two years of fighting have killed 10,000 people.

Social media in Crimea carried reports and footage of troops and weapons arriving from Russia this week, and the country’s military said the high-tech S-400 anti-missile and anti-aircraft system had been deployed to the region.

Russia's apparent haste to boost its forces in Crimea suggests a possible link to its rapprochement with Turkey, after talks between the countries' presidents on Tuesday. It has also been noted that Turkey, another major Black Sea power that keeps a close and usually critical eye on Crimea, has said nothing about the latest developments.

‘Bad intentions’

At a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council, convened at Ukraine’s request on Thursday night, Kiev’s envoy Volodymyr Yelchenko claimed Russia had massed 40,000 troops close to where Crimea meets mainland Ukraine.

“These numbers may reflect some very bad intentions . . . My biggest hope is that this discussion will help the Russian Federation to understand that they cannot really continue with this kind of behaviour,” he said.

Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin dismissed the claims and said “chaos” reigned in Kiev. “Instead of counting our military they should be bringing an end to the conflict in [eastern Ukraine] and stop shelling civilians,” he said.

The EU and US called for calm, and Germany's foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he would meet Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Monday.

In Moscow, Mr Putin unexpectedly changed his chief-of-staff, replacing long-time ally Sergei Ivanov with his erstwhile deputy, Anton Vaino. Mr Putin said Mr Ivanov would become a special representative for ecology and transport at his own request.