Ukraine ’s volunteer battalions a ‘Nato legion’, Putin claims

Kremlin tells West to drop threat of more sanctions and increase pressure on Kiev

Russian president Vladimir Putin:  “We talk about ‘the Ukrainian army, the Ukrainian army’, but who is really fighting there?” Photograph: Mikhail Klimentyev/Ria Novosti /Kremlin Pool/EPA

Russian president Vladimir Putin: “We talk about ‘the Ukrainian army, the Ukrainian army’, but who is really fighting there?” Photograph: Mikhail Klimentyev/Ria Novosti /Kremlin Pool/EPA

 

Russia has denounced western threats to impose further sanctions over its role in Ukraine’s conflict, and claimed that government forces fighting Moscow-backed separatists there are largely a “foreign Nato legion”.

The Kremlin sharpened its rhetoric as EU foreign ministers prepared for emergency talks on Ukraine, which are likely to highlight divisions over how strongly the EU should punish Russia for supporting the militants.

“We talk about ‘the Ukrainian army, the Ukrainian army’, but who is really fighting there?” Russian president Vladimir Putin said yesterday.

“In part, it’s official units of the armed forces, but to a significant degree it’s so-called volunteer nationalist battalions. In effect, it’s not an army, it’s a foreign legion, in this case a foreign Nato legion, which, of course, is not pursuing the nationalist interests of Ukraine. It has totally different goals, connected to achieving the geopolitical goal of containing Russia.”

Mr Putin claims that the past 14 months of upheaval in Ukraine, from the protests that ousted Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovich to the current war in the east, is a bid to weaken Russia by the US and some EU states.

Ukraine’s volunteer battalions are the most fervently patriotic units in its armed forces, contain relatively few foreigners, and say their country’s uprising and conflict are part of a fight against corruption and Moscow’s influence.

Mr Putin’s attack seemed intended to suggest equivalence between Ukraine’s servicemen and the insurgents who control much of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces and rely heavily on Russian fighters and weaponry. Moscow rejects as lies mounting evidence of its extensive provision of arms and manpower to the rebels.

Nonsense claims

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg called Mr Putin’s claims “nonsense”.

“The foreign forces in Ukraine are Russian, so I think that is, in a way, the problem, that there are Russian forces in Ukraine and Russia backs the separatists with equipment,” he said.

Deadly fighting continued yesterday, especially around the government-controlled town of Debaltseve, which is a key road and rail junction.

Ukraine and the West blame the rebels for a missile strike on Saturday on the southeastern port of Mariupol that killed 30 people and prompted the EU to call an emergency meeting of foreign ministers for Thursday.

“The response of the western world should be very firm,” Polish president Bronislaw Komorowski said yesterday. “In my opinion, the EU response should be to deliberately raise the issue of toughening sanctions against Russia.”

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier acknowledged, however, that “nobody is desperately ambitious to meet in Brussels to impose sanctions . . . A lot depends on how the next three days go . . . Of course, an attack or a broad offensive on Mariupol would be a qualitative change in the situation, to which we would have to react.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the West should pressure Kiev and refrain from “blackmailing Russia economically”.