US, Russia Trade Claims on Ukraine Border 'Buildup'

President Obama speaking in Brussels this week. (Photo: President of the European Council/cc/flickr)

US, Russia Trade Claims on Ukraine Border 'Buildup'

Putin calls Obama, officials to 'discuss next steps'

Update: Russian President Putin called President Obama on Friday to discuss the crisis in Ukraine. The leaders agreed that Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, "would meet to discuss next steps," according to a statement from the White House.

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U.S. and Ukrainian officials are pointing to Russia's reported troop buildup on the Ukraine border as a sign of potential imminent military action. The Russian foreign ministry, however, says this buildup does not exist.

In an interview aired Friday on CBS, President Barack Obama said that Russia's massing of troops along the border "may simply be an effort to intimidate Ukraine or it may be that they've got additional plans."

What Russia should do now, Obama said, is "to move back those troops and to begin negotiations directly with the Ukrainian government, as well as the international community."

Obama added that Russia's President Putin appears to be "misreading" the West's motives and is holding onto a "grievance" over the loss of the Soviet Union.

The extent of the troop buildup is unclear at this point.

According to the UK's Independent:

While Moscow has said the soldiers are merely involved in military manoeuvres, fears are growing in Washington that preparations may be under way for fresh incursions into parts of eastern Ukraine in the wake of the annexation earlier this month of Crimea. US officials believe that the positions of the troops are being deliberately concealed and that supply lines for a possible invasion have already been established.

ABC Newsreported that Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby

would not say how many troops have gathered there beyond saying, "thousands ... there's no question about that."

Several U.S. officials have told ABC News that Russia has gathered about 30,000 troops in various locations along Ukraine's eastern border.

The Russian foreign ministry countered these claims, issuing a statement on Friday that the West was ignoring its own international survey flights over the area.

"Is objective information collected by military inspectors not provided to the political leadership [of Western countries]? Or are these leaders, yielding to their emotions, inclined to ignore the facts in order to satisfy their own political tastes and preferences?" the Wall Street Journal reports the statement as saying.

The Washington Postadds:

Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said that international observers had visited the area and did not report seeing evidence of a looming invasion.

"So, did they show signs of a military threat from Russia to Ukraine?" he said. "Nothing like that."

Speaking to PBS earlier this month, Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian Studies at New York University and of politics at Princeton University, warned of what could happen if Russian troops moved to eastern and southern Ukraine:

HARI SREENIVASAN: What are the options for the U.S. here?

STEPHEN COHEN: Zero. Zero, unless we want to go to war. Putin holds all the cards for better or worse. He holds the military cards because it's his territory. He holds the political cards because a very large portion of Ukraine supports Putin, not the West. He holds the economic cards because Ukraine is part of the Russian economy. And legally -- you'll have to ask a lawyer -- there is the question of whether the Russians are right - is the government in Kiev which overthrew, 10 days ago, the constitutional order in Kiev and threw out the elected president -- is it a legitimate government - whatever that word means? Putin says it it's not legitimate. We haven't recognized it as yet, but we're acting as if it is legitimate. I don't know what a lawyer would say.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Are we following the same path of 2008 in Russia and Georgia? Where essentially this escalated into an all-out war for a few days?

STEPHEN COHEN: You're right, there is a similarity in the sense that that two was a red line -- the Former Soviet Republic of Georgia. But there was something else there. First it was of much lesser importance to Russia than Ukraine because of its location and its size. Secondly, even though we always say that Russian and Putin invaded tiny little Georgia, the fact is that the war was begin, by the American-backed military forces of Georgia- because they attacked Russian enclaves in Georgia. Today, nobody fired a shot and if nobody fires a shot there is a way out. But there is a worse scenario and that is if the Russians think they have to move their troops not only into Crimea, this peninsula where their naval base is and historically part of Russia, but also into eastern and southern Ukraine as well. There will be enormous pressure for NATO to move into western Ukraine and then all bets are off.

Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry has reportedly shot back at new western-imposed sanctions. Reutersreported:

The United States and the EU have imposed two rounds of visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials, lawmakers and other allies of President Vladimir Putin to punish Moscow for what Western states say is the illegal seizure of Crimea.

"Naturally, such actions cannot be left without a reaction," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement. "The Russian side has taken measures in response, which in many ways mirror (the Western sanctions)."

Amidst these tensions, others are calling for diplomatic actions to counter "the histories we believe set us up for easy manipulations and disastrous actions" and the "false narratives can get people killed."


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