Ukraine crisis: NATO chief Rasmussen says no Russian troop withdrawal seen

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NATO sees no sign that Russia is pulling its forces back from the border with Ukraine, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Tuesday, despite Moscow’s claim of a partial pullback.

The alliance’s foreign ministers also decided to suspend all civilian and military cooperation between NATO and Russia, according to a joint statement.

“Unfortunately I cannot confirm that Russia is withdrawing its troops,” Rasmussen said at the opening of a two-day meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, Belgium.

“This is not what we’re seeing. And this massive military buildup can in no way contribute to a de-escalation of the situation.”

Concerns are high that Russia, which U.S. officials last week said had about 40,000 troops near the frontier, might seek to enter eastern Ukraine, after it annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region last month.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday that he’d ordered a withdrawal of some Russian troops from his country’s border area with Ukraine, Merkel’s office said.

The news prompted U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki to say Monday that if the reports were accurate, “it would be a welcome preliminary step.”

On Tuesday, Merkel told reporters: “I can only take what the Russian president has told me. I will of course try to find out whether this is perceptible or not perceptible.”

According to Russian state media Monday, one Russian infantry battalion was being moved from the border area to its base deeper in Russia. A battalion would typically number several hundred troops.

But Rasmussen appeared to quash hopes that the situation might be easing with his remarks Tuesday. His assessment was echoed in Brussels by UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, who said: “We have had some statements or rumors from Russia about pulling back forces from the eastern border of Ukraine.

“But we haven’t seen the evidence of that yet. Of course, we continue to call for that and continue to use every possible diplomatic lead to seek a de-escalation of this crisis.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who’s among those in Brussels for the NATO meeting, also called for a Russian withdrawal in lengthy weekend talks in Paris with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.

Ministers condemn Russian intervention

NATO said it will suspend “all practical civilian and military cooperation” with Russia because of Moscow’s occupation and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

A joint statement said “political dialogue in the NATO-Russia Council can continue,” specifically at the ambassadorial level and above. NATO will review its relations with Russia at its next meeting in June, the statement added.

The foreign ministers from NATO’s 28 member states met with Ukraine’s acting Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia while in Brussels, in the latest demonstration of Western support. But Moscow does not recognize Ukraine’s new government, saying ousted President Viktor Yanukovych was removed in an unconstitutional coup.

In a joint statement, they said they were united in condemning Russia’s “illegal military intervention in Ukraine and Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

“We do not recognize Russia’s illegal and illegitimate ‘annexation’ of Crimea. We will continue to work together to reach a political and diplomatic solution which respects international law and Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders.”

They called on Russia to reduce its troops in Crimea to pre-crisis levels and withdraw them to their bases, and to reduce military activities along the Ukrainian border.

The ministers also called on Moscow “to reverse the illegal and illegitimate ‘annexation’ of Crimea; to refrain from any further interference and aggressive actions in Ukraine … and to abide by international law.”

At the same time, NATO and Ukraine announced they would intensify cooperation and promote defense reforms in Ukraine through training and other programs.

Earlier, Rasmussen said the NATO foreign ministers would discuss options to boost their collective defense capability, including enhanced military exercises and updated defense plans, in addition to the stepped-up NATO air surveillance already in place above some Eastern European nations.

“Defense starts with deterrence, so we will take the necessary steps to make it clear to the world that no threat against NATO allies will succeed,” Rasmussen said.

Russian warning

As the talks got under way, Russia’s Foreign Ministry warned Ukraine against seeking integration into the defense alliance.

Discussion of the issue while Yanukovych was in power “led to freezing of Russian-Ukrainian political communications, to headaches in the relationship between NATO and Russia and, what is the most dangerous, to the deepening of the split of Ukrainian society, the majority of which doesn’t support the idea of Ukraine entering NATO,” a Foreign Ministry statement said.

It added that Kiev must understand that the prospects for future cooperation between Ukraine and Russia, including on economic matters, “will largely depend on the actions Ukraine takes in its foreign policy.”

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula last month amid the political upheaval that followed the ouster of the pro-Moscow Yanukovych, sparking the most serious East-West crisis since the Cold War ended.

Ukraine’s parliament on Tuesday granted permission for foreign military units, including some from NATO countries, to conduct military exercises in Ukraine in 2014.

Such military exercises by foreign troops, including naval drills in the Black Sea, are an annual event but take on additional significance this year in light of Russia’s military takeover of Crimea.

Gazprom hikes natural gas price

In a move that will heighten pressure on the interim government in Kiev, Russian energy giant Gazprom announced a sharp increase in the price it charges Ukraine for natural gas.

Starting Tuesday, Ukraine will be charged $385.50 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas, up from the previous rate of $268.50, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted Gazprom Chief Executive Alexei Miller as saying.

The move ends a discount that was agreed to before Yanukovych was ousted in February after months of street protests.

The gas price hike will only increase the pressure on Ukraine’s interim government as it seeks to stave off economic collapse.

Ukraine, which is heavily reliant on Russia for energy, is also $1.7 billion in arrears in its payments for gas already supplied, Miller said, according to RIA Novosti.

The International Monetary Fund last week agreed to lend Ukraine up to $18 billion over the next two years in return for a package of reforms, including to its energy market.

Kiev has been running dangerously low on cash to pay for imports and service its debts since the ouster of Yanukovych, which killed off a $15 billion financial lifeline from Russia.

By Laura Smith-Spark

CNN’s Alla Eshchenko, Susannah Palk, Victoria Butenko, Boriana Milanova, James Frater, Talia Kayali and Marie-Louise Gumuchian contributed to this report.

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