NATO, Russia face off across Black Sea

The US Defense Department is dispatching a naval vessel to the Black Sea to conduct military exercises with allies in the region, as well as deploying additional Marines to enlarge a "rotational crisis response force" in Romania, the Pentagon announced April 3. The Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response Force, based at Moron Air Base in Spain, is being increased from 500 to 675 and deployed to Romania "to allow greater flexibility." The Pentagon denied that the decision to send the additional Marines to Romania is related to developments in Ukraine. (American Forces Press Service, April 3)

Ukraine implicates elite police force in shootings

An inquiry by the interim Ukrainian government on April 2 implicated members of the special Berkut riot police in the deaths of 76 anti-government protesters in Kiev in February. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov presented initial findings before reporters indicating twelve members of the elite police force as snipers and arrested three on suspicion of shooting deaths. Avakov also identified Maj Dmytro Sadovnyk as commander of a Berkut unit suspected of the shooting death of seventeen protesters. Most of the protester shootings occured near the main protest camp on Independence Square. Ukrainian Security Service chief Valentyn Nalyvaychenko has accused Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives of coordinating operations against protesters. In addition to allegations of Russian involvement in suppressing protests, a top security official for the interim government accused ousted President Viktor Yanukovych's government of hiring gangs of thugs to terrorize protesters and opposition groups.

Russia boosts military aid to Assad

Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated Moscow's support for Syria's Bashar al-Assad in an April 2 message delivered by a visiting delegation of the Russia-based Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, headed by the society's chairman Sergei Stepashin. In the message, Putin hailed Assad's war against "international terrorism" that he asserted is "backed" by Western nations. (Xinhua, April 2) The message comes amid reports from Jane's Defense Weekly that Assad's military started using longer-range Russian Smerch and Uragan rockets for the first time in February. Ruslan Pukhov, an adviser to Russia's Defense Ministry and head of the Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, confirmed that Moscow is supplying a "lifeline" of ammunition and parts for tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters to Damascus. Alexei Malashenko, Middle East analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said: "Russia is now doing everything to ensure that Assad wins convincingly. If Russia can show it's capable of carrying out its own foreign policy, regardless of America’s wishes, it will be a major achievement for Putin." (Bloomberg, April 2)

Crimean Tatars vote to seek autonomy

The Majilis of Crimean Tatars on March 29 voted to seek "a national autonomous territory." The assembly of 200 Tatar delegates in the Crimean Tatars' historic capital of Bakhchisaray voted in favor of the proposal put to them by assembly leader Refat Chubarov. "I ask you to approve...the start of political and legal procedures aimed at creating ethnic and territorial autonomy of the Crimean Tatars of their historic territory of Crimea," Chubarov said. "In the life of every nation there comes a time when it must make decisions that will determine its future." The session was started with the anthem of Crimean Tatars, after which Crimean Muslim Mufti Haji Emirali Ablayev blessed the congress' work, saying: "Crimean Tatars returned to their homeland after years of deportation. Despite the fact that Crimea is having hard times today, we should not leave Crimea."  (DW, Interfax, March 29)

Ukraine, austerity and gas

Coverage of Ukraine's newly inked deal with the International Monetary Fund is like the proverbial blind men and the elephant. Russia Today's headline is "Ukraine parliament passes austerity bill required by IMF," whereas the EU-aligned EurActiv put it: "IMF extends generous assistance to Ukraine." Forbes smarmily goes one better with "Ukraine Welcomes IMF Austerity Regime." RT tells us: "It is ordinary Ukrainians who will suffer the most under the new austerity measures as the floating national currency is likely to push up inflation, while spike in domestic gas prices will impact every household." But Reuters fleshes out the context for this a bit: "Moscow will not make it easy and Ukraine is already feeling some consequences from its break with Russia. Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said...the price the country would pay for Russian gas, which accounts for over half of Ukrainian gas imports, would soar by almost 80 percent from April 1 as the seizure of Crimea had rendered a cheaper gas deal obsolete." So it seems that Russia as well as the IMF is imposing privation on Ukrainians, and is especially responsible for the spike in gas prices.

UN invalidates Crimea referendum

The UN General Assembly approved a resolution on March 27 declaring the Crimean referendum to secede from Ukraine invalid. The resolution calls upon all UN states, international organizations and specialty agencies not to recognize any change in status of the Crimean region despite the referendum. The UN gained broad support for the resolution as 100 states voted in favor, outnumbering the 11 votes against and 58 abstentions. The US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power stated in regards to the vote that "the draft resolution was about only one issue: affirming a commitment to the sovereignty, political independence, unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine." The Russian Federation representative asked the UN to respect the voluntary choice made by Crimea and not refuse their right to self determination.

Tatars flee Crimea, fearing persecution

Russia's annexation of Crimea has sent hundreds of the region's ethnic Tatars fleeing the peninsula for western Ukraine. Mustafa Dzhemilev, former chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, said that nearly 1,000 have fled the peninsula since Russian forces took over there some three weeks ago. Dzhemilev decried the exodus, saying, "We did not spend 50 years in exile to be able to now escape under the first threat." Most of the displaced Tatars have made for Ukraine's Kherson Oblast, where there have been reports of Russian military incursions, with a natural gas plant said to be under the control of Moscow's forces. 

First blood as Russia annexes Crimea

Russian President Vladimir Putin and representatives of Crimea's government signed a treaty March 18 incorporating the territory, including the autonomous city of Sevastopol, into the Russian Federation. The agreement follows a referendum two days earlier in which more than 95% of Crimean voters, largely ethnic Russians, elected to secede from Ukraine and request to join Russia. The US, EU and Ukraine all challenge the legitimacy of the referendum and refuse to recognize Crimea as either an independent nation or as a part of Russia. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called the annexation "a robbery on an international scale." Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers reamin in Crimea, and are now facing off with Russian troops and pro-Russian paramilitary forces. At least one Ukrainian solider was reported killed in a clash at a base near Simferopol as Crimea's annexation was announced. Yatsenyuk said the base had been attacked, calling it a "war crime." Russian media said that a "self-defense member"—persumably, a pro-Russian paramilitary—was also killed. The slaying was blamed on a "sniper," who was reported to have been detained.

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