Russia dismisses Ukraine ultimatum reports- UPDATED

Russia has started a build-up of armoured vehicles on the Russian side of a narrow stretch of water between Russia and the Ukrainian region of Crimea

Russia dismisses Ukraine ultimatum reports- UPDATED

World Bulletin/News Desk

Russia's Black Sea Fleet has not issued an ultimatum to Ukrainian forces in Crimea to surrender by 5 a.m. on Tuesday or face an assault, Interfax news agency quoted an official at the fleet's headquarters as saying.

Russia's Black Sea Fleet has a base in Crimea and Moscow has effectively established control over the peninsula, which is part of Ukraine.

Interfax quoted an unnamed source in the Ukrainian Defence Ministry earlier on Monday as saying a deadline to surrender at 0300 GMT had been set by the Black Sea Fleet's commander.

The same news agency later quoted an unnamed representative at the fleet's headquarters as saying no assault was planned, adding: "This is complete nonsense."

Ukraine said Russia was building up armoured vehicles on its side of a narrow stretch of water near the Ukrainian region of Crimea after President Vladimir Putin said he had the right to invade his neighbour, prompting a sell-off in Russian assets.

Ukraine mobilised for war on Sunday and Washington threatened to isolate Russia economically after Putin's declaration, provoking Moscow's biggest confrontation with the West since the Cold War.

The Russian central bank raised its key lending rate 1.5 percentage points after the rouble fell 2.5 percent to an all-time against the dollar at the opening of exchange trading on Monday, while the MICEX index of Moscow stocks tumbled 10 percent to 1,294 points. Russian gas monopoly Gazprom , which supplies Europe through Ukraine, was down more than 13 percent.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, head of a pro-Western government that took power when former president Viktor Yanukovich, a Russian ally, fled on Feb. 21 after three months of street protests against his rule, said Putin had effectively declared war on his country.

A Ukrainian border guard spokesman said on Monday that Russian ships had been moving in and around the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet has a base, and that Russian forces had blocked mobile telephone services in some parts of Crimea.

He said the build-up of Russian armour was near a ferry port on the Russian side of what is known as the Kerch Strait, which separates the eastern edge of the Crimea peninsula and the western edge of the Taman Peninsula.

The strait is 4.5 km (2.8 miles) wide at its narrowest point and up to 18 metres (59 feet) deep.

"There are armoured vehicles on the other side of the strait. We can't predict whether or not they will put any vehicles on the ferry," the spokesman said by telephone.

The border guard spokesman did not say how many armoured vehicles had gathered in Russian territory, opposite the city of Kerch on the Ukrainian side of the strait.

There was no immediate comment from the Russian Defence Ministry.

BUİLDİNG A BRİDGE TO CRİMEA

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Monday that Russia would press ahead with plans to build bridge linking Russia directly with Ukraine's Crimea region, which Moscow has wrested from Kiev's control in the past few days.

Under discussion for years, a bridge linking southern Russia's Krasnodar region with Crimea would give Russia a transport link to the prized Black Sea peninsula that would bypass the rest of Ukraine.

Medvedev told deputies that Russia and Ukraine had signed "documents related to a project for construction of a transport corridor across the Kerch Strait" in December, when the now-ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich was still in power.

Medvedev said he had signed an order putting a state roadbuilding company in charge of the project "in order to shift this work into the practical realm, regardless of the political situation", according to a government transcript of his meeting.

The Kerch Strait links the Black and Azov Seas and separates the eastern end of Crimea from the Russian territory. The body of water, about 4.5 km (3 miles) wide, can now be crossed by ferry.

RUSSIAN FLAGS FLYING

Putin secured permission from his parliament on Saturday to use military force to protect Russian citizens in Ukraine and told U.S. President Barack Obama he had the right to defend Russian interests and nationals, spurning Western pleas not to intervene.

Crimea has an ethnic Russian majority.

Russian forces have already bloodlessly seized Crimea - an isolated Black Sea peninsula where Moscow has a naval base.

On Sunday they surrounded several small Ukrainian military outposts there and demanded the Ukrainian troops disarm. Some refused, leading to stand-offs, although no shots were fired.

All eyes are now on whether Russia makes a military move in predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, where pro-Moscow demonstrators have marched and raised Russian flags over public buildings in several cities in the last two days.

Russia has staged war games with 150,000 troops along the land border, but so far they have not crossed. Kiev says Moscow is orchestrating the protests to justify a wider invasion.

Ukraine's security council ordered the general staff to immediately put all armed forces on highest alert. However, Kiev's small and underequipped military is seen as no match for Russia's superpower might.

The Defence Ministry was ordered to stage a call-up of reserves - theoretically all men up to 40 in a country with universal male conscription, though Ukraine would struggle to find extra guns or uniforms for significant numbers of them.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned Russia for what he called an "incredible act of aggression" and threatened "very serious repercussions".

"You don't just, in the 21st century, behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext," Kerry told CBS programme Face the Nation.

Kerry said Moscow still had a "right set of choices" to defuse the crisis. Otherwise, G8 countries and other nations were prepared to "to go to the hilt to isolate Russia".

"They are prepared to isolate Russia economically. The rouble is already going down. Russia has major economic challenges," he said. He mentioned visa bans, asset freezes and trade isolation as possible steps. A Kremlin spokesman declined to comment after Kerry's remarks.

Ukraine's envoy to the United Nations said Kiev would ask for international military support if Russia expanded its military action in his country.

NATO ambassadors met in Brussels to discuss next steps. Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen accused Russia of threatening peace and security in Europe.

Washington has proposed sending monitors to Ukraine under the flags of the United Nations or Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, where Moscow has a veto.

So far, the Western response has been largely symbolic. Obama and others suspended preparations for a G8 summit in Sochi, where Putin has just finished staging his $50 billion winter Olympic games. Some countries recalled ambassadors. Britain said its ministers would stay away from the Paralympics due next in Sochi.

Britain's International Institute of Strategic Studies estimates Kiev has fewer than 130,000 troops under arms, with planes barely ready to fly and few spare parts for a single submarine.

Russia, by contrast, has spent billions under Putin to upgrade and modernise the capabilities of forces that were dilapidated after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Moscow's special units are now seen as equals of the best in the world.

Who blinks first?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken a gamble on Ukraine and is betting that U.S. President Barack Obama will blink first.

Wounded by a personal political defeat in a battle for influence over Russia's Slavic neighbour, Putin is fighting back, and presenting the crisis as a question of symmetry.

In his view, the West "stood by" and allowed armed men to direct events in the capital Kiev - now he is "standing by" as armed men extended their control over the Crimea region.

The former KGB spy blames the West for stirring passions in Kiev, encouraging an opposition to break agreements to restore peace and allowing what Moscow calls "extremists" and "fascists" to dictate political developments in Ukraine.

Now authorised by parliament to deploy Russia's military in Ukraine to protect national interests and those of Russian citizens, Putin is taking on a West he feels has cut Moscow out of talks on the future of Russia's Orthodox Christian brothers.

How far he will go is the big question.

While Moscow has put 150,000 troops on high alert near Ukraine's border, it has shown no signs, yet, of sending them and denies Ukrainian allegations it sent the protesters who have hoisted Russian flags in some eastern towns.

Putin is saying nothing in public on Ukraine - and has not done so since Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich was deposed more than a week ago.

At the centre of attention as one Western leader after another calls to urge him not to use force, he is betting the West's response will be weak.

His calculation is that Obama has few levers at his disposal and no appetite for war over a remote Black Sea peninsula with symbolic and strategic value to Russia as home to a Russian naval base, but little economic significance.

The two presidents spoke by phone for 90 minutes on Saturday. The call appeared to have ended in a stalemate.

RECLAIMING "LOST" TERRITORY

Putin is banking on salvaging something out of a battle over Ukraine that he appeared to have won when Yanukovich spurned trade and political deals with the European Union in November, but then seemed to lose when Yanukovich was ousted after three months of protests.

"The West told Putin to get lost over Ukraine," said Sergei Markov, a pro-Putin political analyst and director of the Institute for Political Studies in Moscow, underlining the depth of hurt Putin felt over Ukraine.

Accusing Western powers and international organisations of trying to ignore Moscow in talks on financial assistance for Kiev, Markov said: "What we are saying is that if there are any U.N., IMF, G8 agreements without consultations with us, then we will see them as illegitimate."

Reclaiming Crimea, a former Russian territory handed to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, would win Putin kudos among core voters and especially nationalists.

If the status quo established in the last few days holds, with Russian forces already in charge in Crimea, he can hope to have won back Crimea without a shot being fired in anger or the necessity of taking on another drain to the state coffers.

Even if a pullback is forced on him, Putin will still portray himself as the defender of national interests and those of Russians abroad. In the eyes of many voters, he hopes, he will not have given up Ukraine without a fight.

While he has been busy defending national interests, his lieutenants have been lambasting the West over Ukraine, accusing it of manipulating events and working with a government chosen by gun-toting "extremists".

Combined with an orchestrated wave of nationalist indignation over attempts to limit use of the Russian language and persecute Russians in a country many consider an extension of their own, Putin's stance plays well at home.

His insistence that Ukraine's new leaders stick to the terms of a European Union-brokered political agreement last month with Yanukovich goes down well.

This month, his popularity ratings have bounced back to almost 70 percent, according to an opinion poll by independent pollster Levada.

"Putin has not forgiven the fact that the agreement was not fulfilled and that is one of his greatest motivations. He considers he is acting in a symmetrical way," said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor.

"I think that the authorities think it's very helpful that people are getting themselves worked up about this... And the majority feel in a patriotic mood about Crimea and Ukraine. I think it's positive for the Kremlin. They won't refuse action."

ACTION?

Whether he takes action may still depend on the West.

Military intervention in Ukraine has higher stakes than the war Russia fought with Georgia in 2008 - invading Ukraine's southeast could transform Putin, a man who wanted the Sochi Winter Olympics to show Russia's modern face, into a pariah.

If Western powers decide to try to punish Russia with sanctions, Putin will be likely again to pursue a "symmetrical" policy and hit back with similar moves.

This would go down well with core supporters, but might risk unsettling the wealthy businessmen whose support helps cement Putin's grip on power.

But there is a risk Putin could be forced into action over Crimea by the nationalist thinking that he has let loose - and this would be particularly risky if he were pushed into action to defend Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine.

The decision to seek authorisation to send in troops looked less like a prelude to war and more like a threat aimed at getting Kiev and the West to cut a deal, Professor Mark Galeotti from the Center of Global Affairs at New York University wrote on his blog.

"As the language toughens and the troops roll, though, it's getting harder to believe that common sense is going to prevail in the Kremlin."

In broadcasts with Cold War overtones, state television has many times repeated footage of parliament accusing Washington of crossing a red line by warning that Moscow will face "costs" if it intervenes in Ukraine.

It has run image after image of pro-Russian protesters raising the Russian flag above administrative buildings in several eastern regions, including the industrial centres of Donetsk and Kharkiv.

The patriotic mood has caught on. For every dissenter wondering whether this is the worst thing Russia could do since it crushed opposition in Czechoslovakia in 1968, there are dozens more who say the West is fomenting violence.

Near Red Square and the Defence Ministry in Moscow on Sunday, a few hundred protesters waved banners calling for "No War". Dozens were detained.

But their numbers could not match the thousands who turned out for a demonstration for the "defence of the Ukrainian people" in central Moscow.

"Fascism will not win," the protesters chanted. "Crimea is Russia. We are for Russian unity."

Last Mod: 03 Mart 2014, 20:31
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