NATO sounds alarm as Russian forces build on Ukraine border

Warnings of a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine as the country consolidates its hold on Crimea.

Sergei Grits
Two men at a pro-Russian rally in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, earlier today. That's a statue of Lenin behind them.

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Ukraine's acting Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya said this morning that the likelihood of war between his country and Russia is growing as Russian troops continued to seize Ukrainian military bases in the annexed Crimea region. 

Mr. Deschchytsya told ABC that "we don't know what (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has in his mind... that's why this situation is becoming even more explosive than it used to be a week ago."

NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove told a conference in Brussels that the Russian force along the Ukrainian border "is very, very sizable and very, very ready" and that "Russia is acting much more like an adversary than a partner." Gen. Breedlove said of particular concern is the breakaway Moldovan region of Trans-Dniester, which could become a potential target for Russia. Separatists in the region have said they'd welcome union with the country, much as Russian-speaking Crimeans favored the annexation that took place last week.

Meanwhile, a senior Obama administration official said NATO's ability to deter a possible Russian incursion is limited. Speaking on CNN, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said the US is considering providing military assistance to Ukraine but it's "unlikely to prevent an invasion" of the country if that is Putin's objective. 

Earlier today, Russia's Defense Ministry said that its troops had taken control of most of Ukraine's military installations with Crimea, with the Russian flag now flying over 189 former Ukrainian bases. One of the latest Ukrainian bases seized was at Belbek, which fell yesterday. Two Washington Post reporters were on the scene:

With a burst of automatic weapons fire and stun grenades, Russian forces in armored personnel carriers on Saturday broke through the walls of one of the last Ukrainian military outposts in Crimea, then quickly overpowered Ukrainian troops armed only with sticks.

... In Belbek, the Ukrainians put up no resistance on the orders of the base commander, Col. Yuli Mamchur, who has become a symbol of Ukrainian spirit for his steely defiance of repeated Russian demands that the tactical air wing surrender and relinquish all weapons.

Most of the 200 or so troops on the base have weapons, but Mamchur was determined to avoid casualties. So when four Russian personnel carriers drove through a concrete wall and rammed down the wrought-iron front gate after an hours-long standoff, Mamchur’s men were waiting with sticks that appeared to have been fashioned from broken broom handles, tree branches, railing dowels, table legs and croquet mallets.

Russian continues to insist that it is not interested in further conflict, going so far as to say that there is no troop buildup along Ukraine's eastern border. Kremlin outlet RT cited a statement from Deputy Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Antanov, in which he said Russia had informed US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other foreign counterparts that Russia "has no intention" to concentrate troops in the areas where NATO says it is concentrating troops.

The US insists the sanctions imposed on some Russian businessmen and officials last week are exacting a cost on the country - Mr. Blinken mentioned weakness in the ruble and declines in the Russian stock market as evidence - but others say sanctions at this level are unlikely to shift Putin's view of Russia's interests. And they may even help him in the short term.

Lilia Shevtsova at the Moscow Carnegie Center argues in a blog this weekend (excerpts from which were translated by The Interpreter Magazine) that the chance of sanctions returning the situation to the status quo ante vanishingly unlikely and:

Second, she writes, “Western sanctions regarding Russia confirm the absence in the West of a single position and decisiveness to inflict real harm on the Russian regime.” Third, “even in that situation, the fact of applying sanctions to Russia complicates the integration of the representatives of the Russian ruling class into Western society. [Instead] their gradual distancing from Western life begins.”

And fourth – and this may be her most important point – “sanctions create for the Kremlin an additional impulse for the isolation of Russia from the external world,” although this self-isolation given Putin’s policies appears to be “inevitable even if there are no sanctions imposed.”

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