US Suspending Trade, Military Talks With Russians

Monday, 03 Mar 2014 09:25 PM

 

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The United States has put trade and investment talks with Russia on hold as a rebuke for Russia's incursion into Ukraine, a U.S. official said on Monday.

"We have suspended upcoming bilateral trade and investment engagement with the government of Russia that were part of a move toward deeper commercial and trade ties," a spokesman for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said.

The Pentagon also said it is suspending all military engagements with Russia, including military exercises and port visits, as part of Washington's response to Moscow's seizure of Crimea.

The announcement from the Pentagon came hours after President Barack Obama warned the U.S. government will look at a series of economic and diplomatic sanctions that would isolate Moscow.

"We call on Russia to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine and for Russian forces in Crimea to return to their bases," Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement.

The U.S. military does not take such steps lightly and took no such action, for example, last year during turmoil in Egypt that saw the army topple the country's first freely elected leader.

Military-to-military contacts help bridge gaps between nations and reduce chances of misunderstandings, officials often say.

Kirby said that although the Defense Department found "value" in military-to-military relations with Russia, "we have, in light of recent events in Ukraine, put on hold all military-to-military engagements." Its suspension also applied to bilateral military meetings and planning conferences, he said.

Despite an international outcry over actions in Ukraine, Putin has shown little sign of backing down, and Russia has built up armored vehicle presence near Crimea and staged military maneuvers in what appears to be a show of strength.

U.S. officials have dismissed the possibility of military options, which could further escalate the standoff, and the Pentagon appeared at pains to quash any speculation the U.S. armed forces were poised to get involved.

"Some media outlets are speculating on possible ship movements in the region. There has been no change to our military posture in Europe or the Mediterranean," Kirby said.

Kirby added U.S. Navy units were conducting routine, previously planned operations and exercises in the region.

"We call on Russia to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine and for Russian forces in Crimea to return to their bases, as required under the agreements governing the Russia Black Sea Fleet," Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said.

The announcement came as Russia's U.N. envoy told the Security Council that Ukraine's ousted leader Viktor Yanukovych has sent a letter to Putin requesting that he use Russia's military to restore law and order in Ukraine.

"Under the influence of Western countries, there are open acts of terror and violence," Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin read from the letter in an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

"People are being persecuted for language and political reasons," he read. "So in this regard I would call on the president of Russia, Mr. Putin, asking him to use the armed forces of the Russian Federation to establish legitimacy, peace, law and order, stability and defending the people of Ukraine."

Churkin held up a copy of the letter for council members to see during a heated council session in which Western envoys and the Russian ambassador hurled allegations at each other for two and a half hours. He said the letter was dated March 1.

After the Russian ambassador spoke, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power dismissed Russian claims that Russian-speaking Ukrainians were under threat in the eastern regions of the former Soviet republic.

"There is no evidence that ethnic Russians are in danger," she told the 15-nation council, which is holding its third emergency session on Ukraine in four days, this time at the request of Russia.

Power said there was "no legal basis" for Russia to justify its military deployments in Ukraine through an invitation from the regional prime minister of the Crimea, adding only Ukraine's parliament could do that.

"Russia has every right to wish that events in Ukraine had turned out differently," she said. "But it does not have the right to express that unhappiness by using military force or by trying to convince the world community that up is down and black is white."

Churkin rejected Power's denials and said she appeared to have gotten all her information about Ukraine "from U.S. TV". He repeated Moscow's view that Yanukovich is Ukraine's legitimate leader, not interim President Oleksandr Turchynov.

Kiev's U.N. envoy Yuriy Sergeyev told the council Russia had deployed roughly 16,000 troops from Russian territory to Ukraine's autonomous region of the Crimea since Feb. 24, a sign of Russia's growing presence in the troubled region.  He made clear this was in addition to troops Russia had already deployed to service its Black Sea fleet in the Crimea under an arrangement with Kiev.

"Approximately 16,000 Russian troops have been deployed in Crimea by the military ships, helicopters, cargo airplanes from the neighboring territory of the Russian Federation. The Russian troops keep taking their attempts to seize, block and control crucial governmental and military objects of Ukraine in Crimea: the Parliament in Crimea, all civil and military airports, means of communications, radio stations, customs service, military and coast guard bases and headquarters of the Ukraine’s navy in Crimea."

'Voice of the Past'

Ignoring warnings from Obama and other Western leaders, Putin won permission from his parliament on Saturday to use military force in Ukraine. The stated purpose was to protect ethnic Russians after the ouster of Ukraine's Russian-backed president a week ago.

Putin got the green light from parliament after Russian forces had already gained control of Crimea, an isolated Black Sea peninsula with an ethnic Russian majority and where Moscow has long had a naval base.

French Ambassador Gerard Araud compared Russia's intervention in Ukraine to the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 when Warsaw Pact forces crushed attempts by Prague to relax censorship and implement more lenient policies than previous communist governments there.

"We are hearing the voice of the past," Araud said. "I was 15 years old when Soviet forces entered Czechoslovakia. It was the same justification."

Despite the sharp exchanges reminiscent of the Cold War, no formal outcome of Monday's meeting was expected. Russia is a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council and, therefore, can block any actions proposed by its members.

The council met on Friday and Saturday to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine but took no decisions, as expected. Both meetings highlighted the deep divisions between the United States and other Western nations and Russia, which has a major Black Sea naval base in the Crimea region

At Friday's session, Ukraine accused Russia of illegal military incursions onto Ukrainian territory, while U.S. and European delegations warned Moscow to withdraw any new military forces deployed in neighboring Ukraine.

Russia, however, said any military movements by Russian forces there were in compliance with its agreement with Kiev on maintaining its naval base there. On Saturday, the United States called for international observers to be deployed to Ukraine.

Power and other Western envoys reiterated the call for monitors at Monday's session. Churkin responded by saying he did not necessarily reject the idea of international observers being deployed to Ukraine, though he did not explicitly support the proposal either.

© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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