Moscow to review military strategy as NATO plans rapid-reaction force

A press conference is held Monday, Sept. 1, 2014, in Brussels, where NATO leaders announced plans to develop a rapid-reaction force. On Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014, Russia responded by announcing plans to review its military strategy.

MOSCOW — Russia on Tuesday denounced Ukraine’s moves to join NATO and said it would review its military strategy in the face of expected NATO plans to establish a rapid-reaction force capable of deploying quickly to Eastern Europe.

The stand appeared certain to ratchet up tensions between Moscow and NATO ahead of a meeting of alliance leaders in Wales later this week, when the alliance is expected to endorse the creation of a new military force of some 4,000 troops capable of moving on only about eight hours’ notice.

In Kiev, a Ukrainian military spokesman said 15 more Ukrainian service members have been killed in the past 24 hours in fighting with pro-Russian separatists backed by Russian military forces.

Russian troops have been spotted in the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as other places in eastern Ukraine, according to the spokesman, Col. Andriy Lysenko. He did not elaborate. NATO has estimated that at least 1,000 Russian troops have joined the fighting in Ukraine.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow that Ukraine’s moves to join NATO were undermining efforts to end the war there. He called on Washington to use its influence to “talk sense” into Ukraine.

Lavrov said Kiev sought to join NATO shortly after a meeting of the Russian and Ukrainian leaders in Minsk, Belarus, to seek to resolve the conflict.

“So the party of peace was trying, and is still trying, to advance a negotiated political settlement of all the fundamental questions Ukrainians face, and in Kiev, the party of war is taking steps clearly aimed at undermining these efforts,” Lavrov said.

“Support for the strengthening of the party of war in Kiev is actively being fueled and stirred up by Washington and certain European capitals. The most important thing is the need to talk sense into the party of war in Kiev, and in large part only the United States can do this.”

Earlier, Mikhail Popov, deputy head of the Kremlin’s advisory security council, said, “The fact that the military infrastructure of NATO member states is getting closer to our borders, including via enlargement, will preserve its place as one of the external threats for the Russian Federation.”

He in an interview with the Russian news agency RIA Novosti that NATO was “aggravating tensions with Russia” and cited that as a key factor in determining Moscow’s military strategy. He offered no details. The statement came one day after the Ukrainian defense minister warned of a “great war” with Russia, “the likes of which Europe has not seen since the Second World War.”

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Monday that the NATO alliance would be designing a “readiness action plan” — complete with a rapid-response force — at its Wales meeting to respond to “Russia’s aggressive behavior.”

Lost territory, trapped soldiers and increasing reports of Russian tanks and troops operating in eastern Ukraine have changed the course of events there in the past few days. Newly emboldened pro-Russian separatist forces are bearing down on strategic targets, such as the port city of Mariupol and the airport in Luhansk, where troops retreated in the face of a rebel onslaught Monday.

Ukraine and its Western allies have accused Russia of sending forces to significantly aid pro-Russian separatists. Moscow denies it.

The Wales summit, which will take place on Thursday and Friday, will also be attended by President Obama. It will coincide with a self-imposed deadline from the European Union to announce further economic sanctions against Russia. European leaders agreed over the weekend to slap Russia with new measures within a week — unless it pulled back from Ukraine.

“Let’s sit down and talk, not threaten sanctions,” Lavrov said during an address to university students in Moscow on Monday, pushing for a cease-fire and dismissing Europe’s threats as “sanction inertia.”

Lavrov also scoffed at the idea that pro-Russian militias would surrender their weapons to Kiev, an action he said would be tantamount to “destroying themselves,” even as he pledged that “there will be no military intervention” from Russia.

But Ukraine maintains that an intervention is well underway.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Monday accused Russia of launching “direct and open aggression” against Ukraine, which he said changed “the situation in the zone of conflict in a radical way.”

A spokesman for Ukraine’s military said Russian forces fired on troops at the Luhansk airport Monday and are supporting the separatists surrounding Ilovaysk, where hundreds of Ukrainian troops have been trapped for more than a week. Russian officials have accused Kiev of not taking advantage of the separatists’ offer to let the troops out via a humanitarian corridor, in exchange for disarming.

During a Monday visit to Kiev, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) called for the international community to respond by better arming Ukrainian troops.

“It’s great to provide ­night-vision goggles,” Menendez said at a news conference, referencing one form of assistance the United States approved to send to Ukrainian troops this summer. “But what can you do if all you can do is see them but you can’t defend yourself against their attacks?”

He dismissed concerns that arming Ukraine would spur a negative response from Russia, listing significant events of the conflict, including Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March , the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the recent battles in the east, to make his case

“Russia has done all of this without any provocation,” he said. “From my perspective, this is a Russian fight against Europe being fought out on Ukrainian territory — everything [Russian President Vladimir] Putin doesn’t care for he sees in the Ukrainian people’s desire to turn to the West.”

Pro-Russian rebels are stepping up their demands, too. Ahead of a meeting in Minsk, Belarus, among Kiev representatives, separatists and their interlocutors, Andrei Purgin — a rebel leader in Donetsk — told the Russian news service Interfax that separatists intended to seek “recognition of our independence” during the talks. The Monday discussions yielded little progress.

Putin said in a television interview broadcast Sunday that “statehood” for eastern Ukraine should be part of talks to resolve the conflict, but he has repeatedly insisted that he wants greater autonomy for the region, not the breakup of Ukraine — despite Russia’s seizure of Crimea.

In the interview, Putin scoffed at Europe’s support for the Kiev government, arguing that it ran counter to purported European values.

“What are the so-called European values?” Putin asked. “Maintaining the coup, the armed seizure of power and the suppression of dissent with the help of the armed forces? Are those modern European values?

“Our colleagues need to remember their own ideals,” he said.

Putin stressed that a resolution to the conflict “largely depends on the political will of today’s Ukrainian leadership,” but he said he did not expect the fighting to stop before Ukraine’s parliamentary elections, set for Oct. 26.

Once elected, Ukraine’s new parliament is expected to vote on a law to end the country’s nonaligned status, paving the way for it to eventually apply for NATO membership.

Rasmussen told reporters Monday that Ukraine’s chances of being adopted as a member depend on whether the country can meet various criteria.

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