Backing Ukraine, Biden blasts Russia for land grab
Published: April 22, 2014 08:48PM
Updated: April 22, 2014 08:48PM
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The mother of Sigarov Alexander, 24, reaches for his body at a church during the funeral for three people killed last Sunday in a shooting by unknown gunmen at a checkpoint, in Slovyansk, Ukraine, Tuesday, April 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

Kiev, Ukraine • Vowing that the United States would never recognize Russia’s “illegal occupation” of Crimea last month, Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday reiterated America’s support of Ukraine, declaring that “no nation has the right to simply grab land from another” and calling on Russia to stop supporting masked gunmen who have seized government buildings across the east of the country.

Biden’s remarks, made during a meeting with Ukraine’s interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, signaled strong U.S. backing for the shaky new government in Kiev that Moscow does not recognize and condemns as the illegitimate fruit of a putsch engineered by the West.

In recent weeks, officials in Washington, including President Barack Obama, have issued a string of warnings to Russia threatening increasingly harsh economic sanctions if the Kremlin does not help to de-escalate the crisis in eastern Ukraine. But those seem to have gone largely unheeded.

Biden’s stern words, accompanied by a pledge of a further $50 million in U.S. aid and help to break Ukraine’s dependency on Russian energy supplies, underscored how little trust now exists between Washington and Moscow, despite their joint role in brokering an international accord last Thursday in Geneva that sought, so far with little effect, to defuse the crisis.

Illustrating the volatility of the standoff in eastern Ukraine, the country’s acting president on Tuesday called for trying again to force the pro-Russian militants from the buildings they are holding after a failed attempt last week. In that effort, a column of 21 armored vehicles was commandeered by pro-Russian forces with the aid, the West says, of Russian special forces operatives.

“I call on the security agencies to relaunch and carry out effective anti-terrorist measures,” the acting president, Oleksandr V. Turchynov, said in a statement, “with the aim of protecting Ukrainian citizens living in eastern Ukraine from terrorists.”

Turchynov was reacting to a statement Tuesday by the self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk, which said that one of the “brutally tortured” bodies found in a river there this week was that of Volodymyr Rybak, a government official from the nearby town of Gorlovka and a member of the president’s own political party.

The pro-Russian mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, attributed the killings to Right Sector, a Ukrainian ultranationalist group that many here blame for violent attacks against ethnic Russians in the east, but he did not offer any evidence to back his claim.

Ponomarev also announced that members of Slovyansk’s pro-Russia militia had detained Simon Ostrovsky, an American video journalist from Vice News, and were holding him in the captured headquarters of the Ukrainian Security Services in Slovyansk.

In an emailed statement, Vice said it “is aware of the situation and is in contact with the United States State Department and other appropriate government authorities to secure the safety and security of our friend and colleague, Simon Ostrovsky.”

Biden, echoing the view of Ukrainian authorities that the unrest in the east has been instigated and, in some places, directly assisted by Russian military and intelligence personnel, called on Russia “stop supporting men in masks in unmarked uniforms,” the so-called “green men” who have seized government buildings in at least 10 towns and cities.

“It’s time for Russia to stop talking and start acting - act on the commitments they made” in Geneva, Biden said, adding that Ukraine, through an amnesty law and other steps, was trying to live up to its side of the bargain.

Yatsenyuk, also ratcheting up criticism of Moscow, said, “No country should be allowed to behave like armed bandits” and called on the Russians to stick to the commitments made in Geneva and “not behave as gangsters in this modern century.”

Russia, however, blames Kiev for the slim results of the Geneva agreement, which called for the disarming of gunmen and the freeing of occupied buildings. While Washington and Kiev focus on pro-Russian militants holding buildings in the east, Moscow insists that the main reason for the continuing unrest is the Kiev government’s failure to rein in radical Ukrainian groups like Right Sector, which are still occupying City Hall and the central post office in Kiev.

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Since the ouster in February of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych, Russia has repeatedly denounced Ukraine’s new leadership as dominated by extreme nationalists and neo-Nazis who threaten not only ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in the east but Jews and other minorities across the country. After meeting in Kiev with Ukrainian leaders and members of the Jewish community, however, David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said Tuesday that “the government is committed in word and, we believe, in deed to fighting xenophobia and anti-Semitism.”

Russian allegations of anti-Semites on the rampage in Ukraine, Harris said in an interview, were “a dangerous, Machiavellian game” that only endangered Jews. “This is not the first time in history that the Jewish community has been put in the middle of such a game,” he said.

On Monday, just as Biden arrived in Kiev, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, accused the Ukrainian government of flagrantly violating the Geneva deal and said it was doing nothing to stop extremists, an accusation that was taken as a sign that Russia may be further preparing the groundwork for a military intervention. Russia, which has tens of thousands of soldiers massed on Ukraine’s eastern border, has denied any intention of invading or having any hand in stirring separatist unrest.

In a statement to Ukraine’s parliament after his meetings with Yatsenyuk and Turchynov, Biden spoke of the “humiliating threats” faced by Ukraine and said the United States was “ready to assist.” But he also stressed that Ukraine needed to put its own house in order, calling on it to “fight the cancer of corruption that is endemic in your system right now” and to reduce its crippling dependence on Russia for supplies of natural gas.

“Imagine where you’d be today if you were able to tell Russia: Keep your gas. It would be a very different world you’d be facing today,” Biden told Ukrainian legislators. “It takes some difficult decisions, but it’s collectively within your power and the power of Europe and the United States. And we stand ready to assist you in reaching that.”

He applauded parliament for moving to change Ukraine’s Constitution to devolve more power to its diverse regions, including the mainly Russian-speaking east.

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In an effort to calm pro-Russian separatists, the government in Kiev has promised to grant more autonomy to local authorities to run their own affairs. It has also begun preparing an amnesty law to cover pro-Russian militants who voluntarily give up their weapons and vacate seized buildings.

But Kiev has balked at Russian demands for so-called “federalization,” a wholesale reworking of Ukraine’s state structure, viewing as a ruse to divide the country and place big chunks of territory in the south and east, an area that President Vladimir Putin last week called “New Russia,” under Moscow’s control.

Speaking in Moscow on Tuesday, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of Russia was quoted as saying in parliament that Russia could minimize the impact of any sanctions imposed over the Ukraine crisis and would insist on fair access to foreign markets for its energy exports.

“We will not give up on cooperation with foreign companies, including from Western countries, but we will be ready for unfriendly steps,” Medvedev said.

“I am sure we can minimize their impact,” he said in a clear reference to sanctions. “We will not allow our citizens to become hostages of political games.”

U.S. soldiers headed to Poland

Washington • U.S. Army paratroopers are arriving in Poland to begin a series of military exercises in four countries across Eastern Europe to bolster allies in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula last month. An Army company of about 150 soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team based in Vicenza, Italy, will start the exercises Wednesday in Poland. Additional Army companies will head to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and are expected to arrive by Monday for similar land-based exercises in those countries.

The Associated Press