Skip to main content

NATO concerned over Russian army buildup on Ukraine border

By Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Phillip Taylor, CNN
March 23, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: NATO commander says Russia has a large force on Ukraine's eastern border
  • NEW: "Russia is acting much more like an adversary than a partner," NATO commander says
  • "We must not allow a new division of Europe," says German foreign minister
  • Pro-Russia rallies planned in southern, eastern Ukraine

(CNN) -- NATO's top military commander expressed concern Sunday about the buildup of Russian forces on Ukraine's border, as Moscow's forces consolidated their control of Crimea over the weekend.

Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. Philip Breedlove said Russia had a large force on Ukraine's eastern border and that he was worried it could pose a threat to Moldova's separatist Trans-Dniester region.

"The (Russian) force that is at the Ukrainian border now to the east is very, very sizable and very, very ready," Breedlove, a U.S. Air Force general, said.

"There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Trans-Dniester if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome."

Ukrainian tanks are transported from their base in Perevalne, Crimea, on Wednesday, March 26. After Russian troops seized most of Ukraine's bases in Crimea, interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov ordered the withdrawal of armed forces from the peninsula, citing Russian threats to the lives of military staff and their families. Ukrainian tanks are transported from their base in Perevalne, Crimea, on Wednesday, March 26. After Russian troops seized most of Ukraine's bases in Crimea, interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov ordered the withdrawal of armed forces from the peninsula, citing Russian threats to the lives of military staff and their families.
Crisis in Ukraine
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Crisis in Ukraine Photos: Crisis in Ukraine
See pro-Russian vehicle smash gate
New sanctions 'will be noticed' in Moscow
Ukraine volunteers train to fight
EU announces new round of sanctions

Russia said its forces complied with international agreements. Moscow annexed Crimea following a controversial snap referendum in the autonomous region last week that produced an overwhelming majority of votes in favor of leaving Ukraine to join Russia.

"Russia is acting much more like an adversary than a partner," Breedlove said, speaking at an event held in Brussels, Belgium, by the German Marshall Fund think tank.

Other officials expressed concern too.

"It's deeply concerning to see the Russian troop buildup along the border. It creates the potential for incidents, for instability," Tony Blinken, White House deputy national security adviser, told CNN's "State of the Union."

"It's likely that what they are trying to do is intimidate the Ukrainians. It's possible that they are preparing to move in."

Pro-Russia demonstrations planned

Pro-Russia demonstrations were planned for Sunday in Ukrainian cities outside Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula. The shows of favor for Moscow were scheduled for cities in Ukraine's south and east, where there are many ethnic Russians.

On Saturday, six Russian special forces armored personnel carriers broke through the gates of Belbek air base, firing warning shots into the air, a spokesman for Ukraine's Ministry of Defense in Crimea told CNN. One journalist was injured in the attack, said Vladislav Seleznev.

In a separate incident, pro-Russian self-defense forces stormed the Novofederoskoe military base, also in Crimea, taking control of it, a Ukraine Defense Ministry spokesman said.

Seleznev also said that Crimean self-defense forces and Russian special forces took a Ukrainian ship, the Slavutych.

The ship was captured "after a two-hour assault," he said, though the Ukrainian ship's crew members came ashore and didn't suffer any injuries.

Ukrainian forces on the Novofederoskoe base threw smoke bombs during the incident and retreated to the base's headquarters, Seleznev said in a Facebook posting.

Obama hits Russia with more sanctions
The deadly day that changed Kiev
Russia-Ukraine economics
Ukraine cries 'robbery'

The base's aviation brigade then sang the Ukrainian national anthem, lowered the Ukrainian flag and left the base, he said.

The White House urged Russia to open talks with the Ukrainian government. But in a statement, it also held the Russian military directly responsible for any casualties inflicted on Ukrainian military members -- whether from regular Russian troops or militias not wearing insignias.

Crimea remarries -- but that divorce will be messy

International monitors

The incidents occurred as international observers were set to arrive in Ukraine to monitor the security and human rights situation, in a posting expected to last at least six months.

But they will not enter the contested region of Crimea, a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry said, because this "became part of Russia."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will eventually deploy a total of 100 observers throughout Ukraine in hopes of "reducing tensions and fostering peace, stability and security." They will also check that the rights of ethnic minorities are being protected.

The OSCE may widen the mission to include 400 more monitors, and extend it for a second six-month period if requested by the Kiev government.

Russia, which is one of the OSCE's 57 member states, approved the mission, according to state-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said it hoped the observers' work would stop nationalist extremists, who Moscow says have a strong influence on Kiev's government, and protect linguistic rights. Many Ukrainians speak Russian as their native language.

Russia has previously said it reserves the right to enter Ukrainian territory to protect ethnic Russians from what it says is a threat from ultranationalists and fascists.

Meanwhile, European leaders have demanded that independent monitors be granted access to the Crimean Peninsula.

OSCE monitors made multiple attempts to enter Crimea during the height of the crisis, when pro-Russian militias took control of the region. But armed men at the borders turned them back.

Russia sanctions: EU should leave trade alone

Claims on Crimea

Ukraine, the United States and other Western powers maintain Crimea is still a part of Ukraine.

"We must not allow a new division of Europe," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Saturday in Kiev, where he met with with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and acting President Oleksandr Turchynov.

Russia insists its actions are legitimate. Crimea had belonged to Russia until 1954, when it was given to Ukraine.

The region also has a majority ethnic Russian population and other long historic ties to Russia.

Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, making it strategically important to Moscow.

Moscow has doggedly pursued its own course, even as Western leaders have denounced its actions as violations of Ukraine's sovereignty and a breach of international law.

U.S. President Barack Obama plans to meet with leaders of the G7 group of industrialized nations this week to discuss Ukraine.

Russia has been excluded from the talks on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in the Netherlands.

A planned EU-Russia summit has also been canceled, as the West seeks to increase Moscow's isolation over its actions in Ukraine.

EU leaders imposed a new round of sanctions against 12 individuals last week, bringing the total number of people facing EU asset freezes and travel bans to 33.

The United States announced its own new round of sanctions against 20 individuals and a bank which U.S. officials say is linked to Putin and senior Russian officials. Washington had already announced sanctions on 11 individuals.

"What we've seen the President do in recent weeks, and what we'll see him do this week, is bring the world together in support of Ukraine, to isolate Russia for its actions ... and reassure our partners and allies in NATO and Europe," Blinken said.

Sanctions on Russia: Would World Cup boycott hit harder?

Opinion: Putin's breathtaking lies about Russia

Journalist Azad Safarov and CNN's Ivan Watson, Frederik Pleitgen, Laura Smith-Spark, Tom Watkins, Matt Smith and Ben Brumfield contributed to this report.

Part of complete coverage on
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
The shooting down of MH17 may finally alert Washington and Europe to the danger of the conflict in Ukraine.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1500 GMT (2300 HKT)
Russia has not taken steps to end Ukraine conflict, President Obama said announcing sanctions against separatists, defense companies.
June 27, 2014 -- Updated 2136 GMT (0536 HKT)
An agreement with the EU formally pushes Ukraine away from Russia. The Kremlin says it's okay with that.
June 28, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says peace is possible if Vladimir Putin is in the right mood.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 1458 GMT (2258 HKT)
Vladimir Putin said he hoped for better ties with the United States in a July Fourth message to Barack Obama.
June 27, 2014 -- Updated 1146 GMT (1946 HKT)
EXCLUSIVE: Ukrainian President Poroshenko says he wants peace, and describes negotiations with President Putin.
April 1, 2014 -- Updated 0940 GMT (1740 HKT)
Annexation is no longer the focus of Ukraine crisis. What happened?
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 0033 GMT (0833 HKT)
Civilians are caught in the crossfire between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists. Diana Magnay reports.
June 7, 2014 -- Updated 1823 GMT (0223 HKT)
Petro Poroshenko sets the tone for his country's conversation with itself and the world, but how will Russia now react?
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1711 GMT (0111 HKT)
Images from Ukraine amidst violence after President Petro Poroshenko's election
June 2, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
In the elegant surroundings of London's Somerset House, one oligarch is using art to get his message across.
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 1957 GMT (0357 HKT)
As fighting continues in eastern Ukraine, many wonder how the region will ever heal. CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports.
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 1720 GMT (0120 HKT)
Images from Crimea, Donetsk, Kiev and elsewhere as the future of Ukraine lies in doubt.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1854 GMT (0254 HKT)
Scenes from Ukraine and Crimea, captured by CNN teams.
ADVERTISEMENT