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Russia warns NATO on expanded presence in east European allies

A Russian armored vehicle is seen in front of a Ukrainian army base at the town of Perevalne, Ukraine, on March 14, 2014.

MOSCOW — Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday that NATO shouldn't expand its presence in eastern European member nations as the alliance boosts its forces in response to the Ukraine crisis.

"We expect NATO to respect certain rules," Lavrov told reporters in Moscow. "There shouldn't be a permanent extra military deployment on the territory of eastern European states."

The presence of as many as 40,000 Russian soldiers along Ukraine's eastern border is fueling concern that the Kremlin may invade on the pretext of protecting Russian speakers in eastern and southern Ukraine. Backed by state-run media, President Vladimir Putin says the Kiev-based government is influenced by anti-Russian extremists.

Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last month refocused the U.S.-led alliance on its Cold War-era mission of protecting its territory, which since 1999 includes former Soviet satellite states. Four North Atlantic Treaty Organization members — Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania — border Ukraine. Five also border Russia — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Poland.

"We have seen a very massive Russian military buildup along the Ukrainian borders," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday in Brussels. "We also know that these Russian military armed forces are at very high readiness."

Lavrov said that after military exercises are completed, the Russian battalions taking part in the drills will return to their bases. He didn't give any timetable.

NATO has stepped up an air-policing mission over the Baltic states and dispatched AWACS surveillance planes over Poland and Romania. The United States sent more F-16 fighter jets to Poland and joined Romania and Bulgaria in naval exercises in the Black Sea.

The U.S. said it will send a warship to the Black Sea in the next few days to conduct exercises with allies. The deployment would be in "direct response to the circumstances in Ukraine," Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren told reporters.

Other options being considered include expanding previously scheduled NATO exercises and improving the readiness of the alliance's 13,000-member rapid-response force, according to an American defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military planning.

Ukraine acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said on state- run TV channel UT-1 that Russian aggression is pushing Ukraine toward affiliation with NATO. He said he doesn't "rule out" joining the alliance if Russia continues to act in the same way. The border situation remains "tense," he said, calling Russian pledges to pull back troops "a lie."

Germany's Bild newspaper Thursday cited an unnamed aide to Chancellor Angela Merkel as saying that Putin deceived Merkel in a phone call after which Merkel said Putin told her Russian troops were withdrawing from the Ukrainian border. Rasmussen said on April 1 the alliance had no evidence Russia is scaling back its military buildup.

Lavrov said of the Merkel-Putin call "there wasn't any promise made."

Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans, asked Thursday in Brussels by reporters if he thought Russia will invade Ukraine, said: "I don't have the impression that the Russians intend to do so. But that they can is a clear warning to NATO and we have to take it seriously."

Russia's standoff with the U.S. and European Union over Ukraine poses a threat to a global economy already "too weak for comfort," International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde said Wednesday.

"The situation in Ukraine is one which, if not well managed, could have broader spillover implications," she said in a speech in Washington. Resolving the tensions there and elsewhere "requires not only good policies, but good politics," she said. "Both are essential to enable the global economy to move into a higher gear."

The worst confrontation between the U.S. and European states and Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union has rattled markets.

NATO ministers vowed Wednesday to boost support for eastern nations unnerved by Russia's actions.

"This is really a matter of grave concern," Rasmussen said. "If Russia were to intervene further in Ukraine, I wouldn't hesitate to call it a historic mistake."

The alliance's top military commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, echoed Rasmussen's concerns in an interview with Reuters and the Wall Street Journal.

Russia's military is "ready to go and we think it could accomplish its objectives in between three and five days if directed," Breedlove said in the interview. "This is a very large and very capable and very ready force."

Potential Russian objectives include an incursion into southern Ukraine to establish a land corridor to Crimea, pushing beyond the Ukrainian port of Odessa or moving toward Transnistria, a breakaway pro-Russian region of Moldova, the general was reported as saying.
 

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