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Ukraine’s parliament has voted to bring in martial law, after Russia seized three of its naval vessels and 23 crew members on November 25.

The ships were sailing off the coast of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, when they were captured.

Russia opened fire, before its special forces stormed the vessels. Between three and six Ukrainians were injured.

Ukraine said it was an “act of aggression” from Russia. However, Moscow said the ships had illegally entered its waters.

Image source Wikimedia

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On November 26, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he was proposing that parliament back a 30-day martial law – half the length of that recommended by the country’s security and defense council.

President Poroshenko said he did not want the measure to affect presidential elections set for March 31, 2019.

The Sea of Azov on November 25 clash is the first time Russia and Ukraine have come into open conflict in recent years, although Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russian-backed separatists and Russia volunteers in the east since 2014.

A number of Western countries condemned Russia’s actions.

In New York, the UN Security Council met to discuss the crisis – but failed to agree a Russian-proposed agenda amid sharp disagreements between Moscow and the West.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has inaugurated a highly controversial bridge between the mainland Russia and annexed Crimea.
The $3.7 billion bridge has been a flagship political project for Russia as it seeks to cement its hold on to the territory it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
The Kerch Strait bridge was opened in a typically hands-on fashion by the Russian leader. By driving a truck.

Image source kremlin.ru

Vladimir Putin admits Crimea annexation plot before referendum

The 12 mile (19km)-bridge, now the longest in Europe, is the only direct road link with Russia. It links Russia’s Krasnodar region with Crimean peninsula. Its opening marks the physical “reunification” of Crimea with Russia mainland.
Once fully completed, the road and rail link will be able to handle 40,000 cars a day and to move 14 million passengers and 13 million tons of cargo per year, according to RIA Novosti.
Russian special forces seized Crimea in a lightning operation in February 2014. The West responded with crippling economic sanctions.

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Russia has announced the delivery of new air defense missiles to Crimea, in a move scheduled before the latest tension with Ukraine.

The S-400 Triumph missile systems were earmarked for troops in Crimea last month, Russian media said at the time.

In a statement on August 12, the Russian military said that once the systems were set up, they would be used in exercises.

Russia, which annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, said this week it had foiled a Ukraine sabotage mission.

The Kremlin accused Kiev of trying to send saboteurs into Crimea and reported the deaths of a soldier and a secret police officer in an operation to foil the alleged plot.

Denying the accusations, Ukraine placed its troops on alert along its de facto border with Crimea, and along its front line with Russian-backed rebels holding parts of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east.Crimea annexation 2014

A statement by Russia’s Southern Military District, which incorporates Crimea, said the missiles had been received by an air defense regiment in Crimea.

According to the statement, quoted by Russian news agencies, the missiles were successfully tested on the Kapustin Yar test range in southern Russia.

Russia’s Interfax news agency says t

The missiles are designed to hit airborne targets at a range of up to 249 miles and ballistic missiles at a range of up to 38 miles, flying at speeds of up to 3 miles per second.

The missiles are being installed in Crimea to protect Russia’s Hmeimim air base in Syria among other things, it adds.

In November 2015, Russia deployed S-400s at Hmeimim, after Turkey downed a Russian Su-24 bomber.

Ukraine’s envoy to the UN asked Russia on August 11 to prove its allegations, and said some 40,000 Russian troops were massed on the Crimea-Ukraine border.

His Russian counterpart told the UN Security Council of Moscow’s “concern and outrage” at the alleged incursions.

Russian state TV broadcast an apparent confession by a man named as Yevhen Panov, saying he was part of a Ukrainian defense ministry force sent into Crimea “to carry out acts of sabotage”.

Yevhen Panov said the group also included officers of Ukraine’s military intelligence.

Reports in Ukraine say Yevhen Panov is a former volunteer fighter who has more recently been associated with a charitable organization called Heroes of Ukraine.

Crimea was annexed by Russia after a majority of its mostly ethnic Russian population voted to secede in an unrecognized referendum on self-determination.

The annexation of Crimea was relatively bloodless, in sharp contrast to the ferocious fighting which followed in Donetsk and Luhansk.

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Crimea has been left without power after pylons carrying power lines which supply electricity from Ukraine were reportedly blown up on November 21.

According to local reports, all four power lines were cut, leaving the region’s two million inhabitants without electricity.

Images circulated on social media appeared to show Ukrainian flags attached to the damaged pylons.

Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014, but the Ukrainian authorities have continued to supply power to the area.

Crimean authorities said they had managed to partially reconnect the cities of Simferopol, Yalta and Saky using generators.

Photo AFP

Photo AFP

Crimea’s Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Sheremet said the peninsula’s hospitals had backup power sources and would not be affected.

The Crimean Emergencies Ministry has declared a state of emergency and put rescue teams on high alert.

“Crimea is completely cut off,” Viktor Plakida, the director of Crimea Energy, told Russia’s Tass news agency.

A local emergency response official told Russia’s Tass news agency that Crimea was “operating in standalone mode”.

Crimea can only produce half the power it needs, Mikhail Sheremet said.

Two of the four main power lines were cut in an earlier attack on November 20, reports said.

Ukrainian authorities said they encountered activists blockading the site when they tried to repair the damaged pylons.

“The nature of the damage shows that it took place as a result of shelling or the use of explosive devices,” Ukraine’s state energy company Ukrenergo said in a statement.

Crimean Tatars, an ethnic group native to the peninsula who oppose Russian rule, held a protest at the site of the broken power lines in Kherson region, Russia’s RIA news agency reported.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande have arrived in Ukraine’s capital Kiev to present a new peace initiative.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who is also in Kiev, said the US wanted a diplomatic solution, but would not close its eyes to Russian aggression.

Fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels has killed more than 5,000 people since last April.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of arming rebels in eastern Ukraine and sending regular troops across the border.

Russia denies direct involvement but says some Russian volunteers are fighting alongside the rebels.

Speaking at a joint news conference with John Kerry, Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk said: “We need to get peace. But we will never consider anything that undermines territorial integrity… of Ukraine.”

John Kerry accused Russia of violating Ukraine’s sovereignty, saying that Russia had been acting with “impunity”, crossing the Ukrainian border “at will with weapons [and] personnel”.

“We are choosing a peaceful solution through diplomacy – but you cannot have a one-sided peace,” he said.

John Kerry added that President Barack Obama was still “reviewing all options”, including the possibility of providing “defensive weapons” to Ukraine, due to the dangerous escalation in violence.

Photo Reuters

Photo Reuters

The US is currently only providing “non-lethal” assistance.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said any decision by the US to supply weapons to Ukraine would “inflict colossal damage to Russian-American relations”.

Several senior Western officials have also expressed concern at the prospect of US arms being sent to Ukraine.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier likened the option to “throwing more weapons on the bonfire”, while NATO commander Philip Breedlove said governments must take into account that the move “could trigger a more strident reaction from Russia”.

Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel arrived in Kiev on February 5, in what appeared to be a speedily arranged visit.

They met Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who thanked them for their visit at “a very urgent time”.

Francois Hollande had said that he and Angela Merkel would present a new peace proposal based on the “territorial integrity” of Ukraine, which could be “acceptable to all”.

However, he warned that diplomacy “cannot go on indefinitely”.

Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on February 6.

A spokesman for the Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin would discuss “the fastest possible end to the civil war in south-eastern Ukraine”.

Correspondents say it is not clear how the latest attempt will differ from previous, aborted peace efforts – but there is speculation that Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel hope to discourage the US from supplying Ukraine with weapons.

The talks in Kiev come as NATO unveils details of a plan to bolster its military presence in Eastern Europe in response to the Ukraine crisis.

A new rapid reaction “spearhead” force of up to 5,000 troops is expected to be announced, with its lead units able to deploy at two days’ notice.

NATO is also establishing a network of small command centers in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.

Meanwhile, officials said on February 5 that the European Union is adding 19 people, including five Russians, to its sanctions list over the Ukraine crisis.

Nine “entities” will also be targeted by the sanctions, which were reportedly agreed at an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers last week.

Fighting has intensified in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks amid a rebel offensive.

The fiercest fighting has been near the town of Debaltseve, where rebels are trying to surround Ukrainian troops. The town is a crucial rail hub linking the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Some 1.2 million Ukrainians have fled their homes since last April, when the rebels seized a big swathe of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

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In a wide-raging interview with NPR shortly before leaving for Hawaii for his annual holiday, President Barack Obama has said Vladimir Putin made a “strategic mistake” when he annexed Crimea, in a move that was “not so smart”.

Those thinking the Russian president was a “genius” had been proven wrong by Russia’s economic crisis, Barack Obama said.

International sanctions had made Russia’s economy particularly vulnerable to changes in oil price, he said.

Barack Obma also refused to rule out opening a US embassy in Iran soon.

“I never say never but I think these things have to go in steps” he told NPR’s Steve Inskeep in the Oval Office.

Barack Obama criticized his political opponents who claimed he had been outdone by Vladimir Putin.

“You’ll recall that three or four months ago, everybody in Washington was convinced that President Putin was a genius and he had outmaneuvered all of us and he had bullied and strategized his way into expanding Russian power,” he said.

Photo NPR

Photo NPR

“Today, I’d sense that at least outside of Russia, maybe some people are thinking what Putin did wasn’t so smart.”

Barack Obama argued that sanctions had made the Russian economy vulnerable to “inevitable” disruptions in oil price which, when they came, led to “enormous difficulties”.

“The big advantage we have with Russia is we’ve got a dynamic, vital economy, and they don’t,” he said.

“They rely on oil. We rely on oil and iPads and movies and you name it.”

Following a disputed referendum in Crimea, Russia unilaterally annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in March. It did so weeks after a revolution ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych.

The US, EU and other countries then implemented a series of economic sanctions against Russia.

The Russian currency has since lost half its value against the dollar and the economy has begun to contract.

Barack Obama also said that sending US troops to fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria would be counter-productive.

“If we do for others what they need to do for themselves – if we come in and send the Marines in to fight ISIL [ISIS], and the Iraqis have no skin in the game, then it’s not going to last,” the president said.

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A Ukrainian brand of toilet paper is causing a stir in Crimea because its name has the same initials as Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The V.V. brand toilet paper has been criticized by customers in Simferopol because it alludes to “Vladimir Vladimirovich”, the first two names of Russian President Putin, Radio Free Europe (RFE) says.

Russia caused international anger earlier this year by annexing Crimea after Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from power.

Toilet paper printed with the picture of Vladimir Putin are a popular novelty in Ukraine

Toilet paper printed with the picture of Vladimir Putin are a popular novelty in Ukraine

Crimea’s Russian majority are fiercely loyal to Moscow, and customers found the perceived link to Vladimir Putin’s name difficult to take, RFE reported.

The Sevastopol News newspaper said that one user was “outraged” at the fact that the maker of the product – the Simferopol Paper Mill – had included an outline of the Crimean peninsula on the roll, the implication being that the map would be put to a potentially disrespectful purpose. However, the toilet roll may just be the result of local patriotism – the packing also says “Buy Crimean!” in large letters.

Toilet paper printed with the picture of Vladimir Putin are a popular novelty in Ukraine.

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Steven Seagal has played a concert in Crimea on a stage adorned with the flag of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.

The actor and his blues band took to the stage at a bikers’ show in the city of Sevastopol, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based.

Fans waved Russian flags as Steven Seagal sang and played his guitar.

The US and EU have imposed sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea in March.

Steven Seagal has played a concert in Crimea on a stage adorned with the flag of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine

Steven Seagal has played a concert in Crimea on a stage adorned with the flag of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine

Russia is also alleged to have provided weapons and support to the rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Steven Seagal said he had travelled to Crimea because music unites people, Russia’s RIA-Novosti news agency reported.

The black, blue and red flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) hung in the corner of the stage.

Steven Seagal’s pro-Russian views saw him dropped from the line-up of an Estonian blues festival earlier this summer.

The bikers’ show in Sevastopol was organized by a motorcycle group of Russian nationalists known as the Night Wolves.

RIA Novosti reported Steven Seagal was handed a shirt with Vladimir Putin’s face on it, which he held aloft as he thanked the crowd.

Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters last year the Russian president and Steven Seagal had been friends “for a long time” and regularly meet.

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Ukraine’s newly appointed Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey has promised that the army would retake Crimea, restoring the country’s territorial integrity.

Addressing parliament in Kiev, Valeriy Heletey said: “There will be a victory parade… in Ukraine’s Sevastopol.”

Russia annexed Crimea – which has a Russian-speaking majority – in March after a controversial referendum.

In eastern Ukraine, a government offensive against pro-Russian separatists is continuing.

Lt. Gen. Valeriy Heletey was approved by Ukraine’s parliament as new defense minister after being recommended by President Petro Poroshenko

Lt. Gen. Valeriy Heletey was approved by Ukraine’s parliament as new defense minister after being recommended by President Petro Poroshenko

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande have urged Russian President Vladimir Putin in a conference call to use his influence to put pressure on the rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Vladimir Putin said he was “deeply concerned about the rise in deaths among the civilian population and sharp increase in refugees” entering Russia from south-eastern Ukraine, according to the Kremlin.

All three leaders agreed that the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) should play a more active part in monitoring the situation in the conflict zone.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko later said he was ready to return to a ceasefire provided it was observed by both sides, all hostages were freed and borders secured by government forces.

His statement came after he spoke on the phone with US Vice-President Joe Biden. Petro Poroshenko called off a unilateral truce on June 30, accusing the rebels of staging deadly attacks on Ukrainian government troops.

Lt. Gen. Valeriy Heletey, 46, was approved by Ukraine’s parliament after being recommended by Petro Poroshenko as someone who would work day and night to restore the military capability of the country’s armed forces.

His remark about Sevastopol was applauded by the chamber.

The status of Sevastopol, home port of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet for centuries, was disputed by Russia long before it annexed Crimea.

A new chief of the general staff, Viktor Muzhenko, was also appointed on Thursday.

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The EU is imposing further sanctions over Russia’s actions in Ukraine after self-rule referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk regions say 89% and 96% respectively voted in favor of “self-rule”.

Earlier the head of the rebel Donetsk election commission, Roman Lyagin, said joining Russia “would probably be an appropriate step”.

The EU is imposing further sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine after self-rule referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk

The EU is imposing further sanctions over Russia’s actions in Ukraine after self-rule referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk

Two Crimean companies and 13 individuals have been added to the sanctions list – the names are likely to be announced officially within the next 24 hours.

The sanctions impose travel bans and asset freezes. EU ministers are also discussing what might trigger a broader package of sanctions against the Russian economy.

In a brief statement, the Kremlin described the referendums as “the will of the people” and noted the “high turnout”.

The Kremlin denounced what it claimed had been “attempts to disrupt the votes, with the use of force, including the use of heavy weapons, against civilians”.

The Russian authorities said they expected the results of the vote to be implemented in a civilized manner, without any repetition of violence and called for dialogue between Kiev, Donetsk and Luhansk.

Later Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said there were no plans to hold fresh international talks on the crisis – he accused the West of an “information blockade” over events in Ukraine and of “shameless lies”.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is to travel to Kiev on Tuesday to promote “dialogue” between the different parties.

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Vladimir Putin is making his first visit to Crimea since Russia annexed it from Ukraine.

The Russian president told crowds marking the 1945 Soviet victory over the Nazis that Crimea had shown loyalty to a “historical truth” in choosing to be part of Russia.

The Kiev government protested at the visit, calling it a “gross violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty”.

Kiev also reported that more than 20 people had died in a security operation against separatists in Mariupol.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said that about 20 pro-Russian protesters and one Ukrainian security officer had been killed in the southern port.

Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists had clashed at the police headquarters, which was set on fire.

Vladimir Putin is making his first visit to Crimea since Russia annexed it from Ukraine

Vladimir Putin is making his first visit to Crimea since Russia annexed it from Ukraine

In the Crimean port of Sevastopol, Vladimir Putin thanked the armed forces for their role in World War Two and hailed the incorporation of the peninsula into the Russian Federation.

He watched a fly-by of Russian aircraft and addressed seamen on naval vessels, as crowds gathered on cliffs overlooking the harbor.

Vladimir Putin said: “I am sure that 2014 will go into the annals of our whole country as the year when the nations living here firmly decided to be together with Russia, affirming fidelity to the historical truth and the memory of our ancestors.”

He earlier addressed thousands during a huge, hour-long military parade in Moscow’s Red Square, vowing to defend the “motherland”.

Vladimir Putin told the crowd that May 9, known as Victory Day in Russia, was a “day of grief and eternal memory” and stressed how the “iron will of the Soviet people” had saved Europe from slavery.

“It is a holiday when an overwhelming force of patriotism triumphs, when all of us feel particularly acutely what it means to be loyal to the motherland and how important it is to defend its interests,” he said.

NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Vladimir Putin’s visit to Crimea was “inappropriate”, adding: “We consider the Russian annexation of Crimea to be illegal, illegitimate and we don’t recognize it.”

US National Security Council spokesperson Laura Magnuson said: “We do not accept Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Such a visit will only serve to fuel tensions.”

Ukraine’s interim authorities held subdued memorials to mark the Soviet victory.

A brief veterans’ ceremony was held in Kiev’s main park, in front of PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk and several former presidents.

The authorities feared pro-Russian activists would try to stoke violence if there were any higher profile celebrations.

Nazi Germany invaded the USSR – which included Ukraine – in June 1941 and advanced almost as far as Moscow before being driven back to Berlin.

Crimea was put under Ukrainian administration in 1954.

After the collapse of the USSR, Russia maintained a large military presence on the peninsula, and more than half of the region’s population identified themselves as ethnic Russian.

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The G7 powers have agreed to impose fresh sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine.

A G7 statement gave no detail of the sanctions, but US officials said they could announce measures by Monday.

The West accuses Russia of leading a secession rebellion in Ukraine’s east, months after it annexed Crimea. Moscow denies the allegations.

Meanwhile, negotiators are trying to secure the release of international observers seized by pro-Russia gunmen.

Forces in the city of Sloviansk are still holding the eight European military observers and several Ukrainian army personnel who they seized on Friday and accuse of espionage.

The observers were taking part in a mission linked to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Forces in Sloviansk are holding eight European military observers and several Ukrainian army personnel

Forces in Sloviansk are holding eight European military observers and several Ukrainian army personnel (photo AFP)

Rebel militia continue to occupy official buildings in a dozen eastern cities, defying the government in Kiev.

Russia has tens of thousands of troops deployed along its side of the border with Ukraine and has said it would act if its interests were threatened.

The US accused Russian jets of violating Ukraine’s airspace on Friday in a further sign of escalation.

Pentagon spokesman Col. Steven Warren said Russian aircraft had entered Ukrainian airspace several times in the past 24 hours.

Meanwhile, the G7 praised Ukraine for acting with restraint in dealing with the “armed bands” that had occupied government buildings.

But the group, which includes the US, UK, Germany, Japan, France, Canada and Italy, condemned Russia’s “increasingly concerning rhetoric and ongoing threatening military maneuvers”.

“Given the urgency of securing the opportunity for a successful and peaceful democratic vote next month in Ukraine’s presidential elections, we have committed to act urgently to intensify targeted sanctions and measures to increase the costs of Russia’s actions,” said the statement.

The US and EU already has assets freezes and travel bans in place target a number of Russian individuals and firms accused of playing a part in the annexation of Crimea.

On Friday, Ukraine’s interior ministry said armed separatists had seized OSCE representatives, who were believed to be military observers from Germany, Denmark, Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

Pro-Russian leaders in Sloviansk confirmed the bus had been stopped near the town of Sloviansk and said they were checking the identities of those on board.

The self-proclaimed mayor of Sloviansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, said at least one passenger had been carrying maps showing separatist checkpoints in the area, which suggested “their involvement in espionage”.

Last weekend, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov broadcast an appeal to President Vladimir Putin asking for Russian troops to protect the city from “fascists” after three of his men died in a gunfight.

Russia’s OSCE envoy Andrei Kelin promised to take “all possible steps” to free the representatives, according to Russian media reports.

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Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has said he has “a right” to send troops into Ukraine but hopes he will “not have to exercise that right”.

Vladimir Putin was speaking live on Russian TV after a clash in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, in which three pro-Russian protesters were reportedly killed.

He said he hoped the crisis would be resolved through dialogue.

Talks have opened in Geneva between Russia, Ukraine, the EU and US – the first since unrest erupted in Crimea.

In his annual live television phone-in, Vladimir Putin warned the Ukrainian authorities of “the abyss they’re heading into” and urged dialogue.

Vladimir Putin also admitted for the first time that Russian forces had been active in Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow last month. Previously he had insisted that the camouflaged, masked gunmen who took over Crimea were a local “self-defense” force.

In his annual live television phone-in, Vladimir Putin warned the Ukrainian authorities of "the abyss they're heading into" and urged dialogue

In his annual live television phone-in, Vladimir Putin warned the Ukrainian authorities of “the abyss they’re heading into” and urged dialogue (photo RT)

The West says Russia is aiding the pro-Russian activists now occupying dozens of official buildings in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region.

Vladimir Putin dismissed as “rubbish” allegations that Russian special forces were operating there.

Russian-speakers are a majority in Crimea and Donetsk, where ties to Russia are strong. Vladimir Putin reminded viewers that Tsarist Russia used to call eastern Ukraine “New Russia”.

“The Federation Council [upper house of parliament] granted the president the right to use military force in Ukraine. I really hope that I do not have to exercise that right and that we are able to solve all today’s pressing issues via political and diplomatic means,” Vladimir Putin said.

He said the Kiev government, which had “seized power”, had only spoken to its own appointees in the region, but “not to the people whom locals trust”.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s State Border Service has been quoted by the Interfax-Ukraine news agency as saying that it is “significantly” restricting entry into the country by adult men from Russia because of the risk of “acts of terror”.

Overnight about 300 pro-Russian separatists attacked a military unit in Mariupol near the Azov Sea, throwing petrol bombs. Troops had opened fire, killing three, Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a post on his Facebook page.

Ukraine has now sent in reinforcements including helicopters. There was no independent confirmation of Arsen Avakov’s statement.

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The US is concerned about heightened tension in eastern Ukraine after pro-Russia demonstrators seized government buildings in three eastern cities, Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv.

Secretary of State John Kerry told Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in a phone call that any Russian efforts at destabilization “would incur costs”.

They discussed the possibility of direct talks within the next 10 days.

Ukraine is sending security officials to Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, after buildings there were stormed.

Rebels occupying Donetsk’s regional government building declared a “people’s republic” on Monday and called for a referendum on secession from Ukraine to be held by May 11.

Russia recently annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, where the majority of people are Russian speakers, following a referendum that Kiev and the West say was illegal.

Moscow now has thousands of troops massed along its border with eastern Ukraine. Although it insists it has no intention of invading Ukraine, it says it reserves the right to defend ethnic Russians in the country.

The US has warned Russia against stirring separatist sentiment in eastern Ukraine

The US has warned Russia against stirring separatist sentiment in eastern Ukraine

Russia is refusing to recognize the new authorities in Kiev who took power after pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February.

US state department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said that in the telephone call, John Kerry “called on Russia to publicly disavow the activities of separatists, saboteurs and provocateurs” in Ukraine.

She said John Kerry noted that the actions in eastern Ukraine “do not appear to be a spontaneous set of events”.

“He made clear that any further Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine will incur further costs for Russia,” Jennifer Psaki said.

The US and the EU have already imposed targeted sanctions on Russian and Ukrainian individuals over the annexation of Crimea.

Sergei Lavrov, in an article on the website of the UK’s Guardian newspaper, denied Russia was destabilizing Ukraine and accused the West of “groundless whipping-up of tension”.

He also warned authorities in Kiev against any use of force against pro-Russian demonstrators.

Russia’s foreign ministry said it was “closely watching” events in eastern Ukraine, “particularly in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions”.

It reiterated Moscow’s demands for the creation of a federal Ukraine with broader powers for provinces.

“Stop pointing to Russia, blaming it for all of the troubles of today’s Ukraine,” the statement said.

Pro-Russian protesters seized official buildings in Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk on Sunday night. Police said they cleared protesters from the building in Kharkiv but in Luhansk demonstrators had seized weapons.

Ukraine’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov called the unrest an attempt by Russia to “dismember” Ukraine.

Speaking on national TV, he said it was “the second wave” of a Russian operation to destabilize Ukraine, overthrow the government and disrupt planned elections.

Also on Monday, NATO said it was limiting Russian diplomats’ access to its headquarters in Brussels.

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Pro-Russian protesters have declared People’s Republic of Donetsk after seizing the regional government building in the eastern Ukrainian city.

The rebels have called for a referendum on secession from Ukraine by May 11.

Ukrainian security officials are being sent to the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv after pro-Russia groups occupied government buildings.

Ukraine’s Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov called the unrest an attempt by Russia to “dismember” Ukraine.

In an address on national TV, Oleksandr Turchynov said it was “the second wave” of a Russian operation to destabilize Ukraine, overthrow the government and disrupt planned elections.

Russia recently annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula after a referendum there which Ukraine did not see as valid.

As tensions mounted on Monday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya told Russia’s Ekho Moskvy news agency that Kiev would go to war with Russia if it sent troops into eastern Ukraine.

Moscow has thousands of troops massed along its border with Ukraine. It says it has no intention of invading but reserves the right to protect the rights of ethnic Russians.

Earlier on Monday, protesters seized state security buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Protesters broke into Donetsk’s regional government building and another in Kharkiv – Ukraine’s second largest city – on Sunday. Ukrainian authorities say protesters have now left the building in Kharkiv.

Pro-Russian protesters have declared People’s Republic of Donetsk after seizing the regional government building in the eastern Ukrainian city

Pro-Russian protesters have declared People’s Republic of Donetsk after seizing the regional government building in the eastern Ukrainian city

Ukrainian news agency Unian says gunmen also tried to storm a Donetsk TV building on Monday but were deterred by police.

At an emergency cabinet meeting, interim PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk blamed Russia for the seizures.

“The plan is to destabilize the situation, the plan is for foreign troops to cross the border and seize the country’s territory, which we will not allow,” he said, adding that people engaged in the unrest had distinct Russian accents.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Russian troops remain within 19 miles of the frontier. The city of Luhansk is just 16 miles from the Russian border.

Police have blocked roads into Luhansk and armed reinforcements are being sent to the restive cities.

Officials said Ukrainian National Security Secretary Andriy Parubiy and Security Service chief Valentyn Nalyvaychenko have been sent to the city.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has already arrived in Kharkiv and First Deputy PM Vitaly Yarema is on his way to Donetsk, a spokeswoman said.

She said the three officials had “all the authority necessary to take action against separatism.”

President Oleksandr Turchynov has cancelled a visit to Lithuania to deal with the unfolding events.

Russia’s foreign ministry said it was “closely watching” events in eastern Ukraine, “particularly in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions”.

It reiterated Moscow’s demands for the creation of a federal Ukraine with broader powers for provinces.

“Stop pointing to Russia, blaming it for all of the troubles of today’s Ukraine,” the statement said.

The crisis has heightened nervousness in many other eastern European states, with Czech President Milos Zeman saying NATO should deploy troops in Ukraine if Russia invades.

“If Russia decides to extend its territorial expansion to eastern Ukraine, the fun is over,” he told Czech public radio on Sunday.

In another development on Monday, NATO said it was limiting Russian diplomats’ access to its headquarters in Brussels.

It comes days after NATO foreign ministers agreed to suspend all practical co-operation with Moscow over its annexation of Crimea.

The latest developments come as Ukraine’s defense ministry said a Russian soldier had killed a Ukrainian military officer still loyal to Kiev in eastern Crimea late on Sunday.

The circumstances are unclear. Russian news agencies said prosecutors had opened a criminal investigation into the death.

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Pro-Russian protesters have seized state security buildings in eastern Ukraine’s cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, officials say.

Reports say that in Luhansk the protesters have raided the arsenal in the security building. Police have reacted by blocking roads into Luhansk.

On Sunday, activists broke into the regional government buildings in the two cities and also Kharkiv.

Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has called an emergency security meeting.

It comes as Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said a Russian soldier had killed a Ukrainian military officer still loyal to Kiev in eastern Crimea late on Sunday.

Another Ukrainian officer present is reported to have been beaten and detained by Russian troops.

Pro-Russian protesters have seized state security buildings in eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian protesters have seized state security buildings in eastern Ukraine (photo Reuters)

The circumstances of the incident are unclear. The Interfax-Ukraine news agency quoted the Defense Ministry as saying the incident happened outside the Ukrainian’s living quarters.

Russian reports said a group of Ukrainian soldiers had been drinking in the town of Novofyodorovka and were on their way home when they passed Russian soldiers guarding an entry to the military base where they previously worked, prompting an argument between the two groups.

Russian news agencies reported that prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into the death – one of few fatalities reported since Russia took control of Crimea last month.

Tensions have escalated in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks. Russia is consolidating its grip on Crimea, annexed by Moscow last month, and thousands of Russian troops remain massed near the Ukrainian border.

Ukrainian authorities say protesters have now left the government building in Kharkiv.

In Luhansk, on Monday police said “unknown people who are in the building have broken into the building’s arsenal and have seized weapons”.

In Donetsk, groups occupying the provincial government building remain barricaded inside.

President Oleksandr Turchynov cancelled a visit to Lithuania to deal personally with the unfolding events.

Meanwhile Ukraine’s PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk has accused Russia on Monday of sowing unrest in his country’s eastern provinces as a pretext for dispatching troops across the border.

Speaking at an emergency Cabinet meeting, Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Russia was behind the seizures of several government buildings in eastern regions that have for weeks seen a spike in secessionist sentiment.

“The plan is to destabilize the situation, the plan is for foreign troops to cross the border and seize the country’s territory, which we will not allow,” he said, adding that people engaged in the unrest have distinct Russian accents.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Russian troops remain stationed within 19 miles of the frontier. The city of Luhansk is just 15 miles west of Russia.

Eastern Ukraine was the political heartland of Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president who fled to Russia in February after months of protests.

About half of the region’s residents are ethnic Russians, many of whom believe Ukraine’s acting authorities are extreme Ukrainian nationalists who will oppress Russians – a claim Kiev denies.

Russia has moved large numbers of troops to areas near the Ukrainian border, and has asserted its right to intervene in Ukraine in order to protect the rights of ethnic Russians there.

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McDonald’s has decided to suspend operations at its three Crimean restaurants following ongoing diplomatic tensions in the region.

The company said that it would try to support staff, and hopes to re-open its restaurants in Simferopol, Sevastopol and Yalta as soon as possible.

McDonald’s is the second in the Crimea to alter its operations after heightened tensions between Russia and the west.

Deutsche Post said on Thursday that it was no longer accepting letters for Crimea.

McDonald's has decided to suspend operations at its three Crimean restaurants following ongoing diplomatic tensions in the region

McDonald’s has decided to suspend operations at its three Crimean restaurants following ongoing diplomatic tensions in the region

“Due to operational reasons beyond our control, McDonald’s has taken the decision to temporarily close our three restaurants in Simferopol, Sevastopol and Yalta,” McDonald’s said.

A Reuters report said that the company had offered to relocate staff who wished to move to Ukraine.

According to a Kiev-based restaurant consulting group, losing the three restaurants would only result in a 5 percent loss for McDonald’s Ukraine Ltd, where the average daily revenue for each restaurant is about $8,800 (100,000 UAH).

“Calculating net income at about 30 percent of revenue, with the Crimean restaurants remaining closed the American corporation will lose $240,000 [UAH 2.7 million] in profits each month,” Olga Nasonova, director of Restaurant Consulting, told Russia Forbes.

According to Olga Nasonova, McDonald’s has invested about $10 million in the three sites.

A McDonald’s restaurant was first opened on May 24, 1997 in Kiev, and the company now has 79 restaurants in 23 cities across Ukraine.

McDonald’s is the fifth most popular restaurant for Ukrainians, according to Olga Nasonova. There are more than 300 restaurant locations in Russia.

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Ukraine’s former President Viktor Yanukovych says Russia’s annexation of Crimea is “a tragedy” and he hopes it will become part of Ukraine again.

In an interview with the Associated Press and Russian channel NTV, Viktor Yanukovych also said he gave no orders to open fire on protesters in the capital, Kiev.

Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev after protests in which more than 100 people died.

Russia annexed Crimea in southern Ukraine last month following a controversial referendum branded illegal by Kiev and the West. The peninsula has a majority ethnic Russian population.

Moscow has insisted it has no intention of invading Ukraine.

Ukraine’s former PresidentViktor Yanukovych says Russia's annexation of Crimea is a tragedy

Ukraine’s former PresidentViktor Yanukovych says Russia’s annexation of Crimea is a tragedy (photo Reuters)

Viktor Yanukovych, now in Russia, said he would try to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to return Crimea to Ukraine.

“Crimea is a tragedy, a major tragedy,” he said.

“We must set such a task and search for ways to return to Crimea on any conditions, so that Crimea may have the maximum degree of independence possible… but be part of Ukraine.”

Viktor Yanukovych said had he remained in power, he would have tried to prevent the referendum, calling it a “form of protest” against Ukraine’s new pro-Western leaders.

More than 100 people were killed in street protests in Kiev in January and February, many of them by sniper fire, but Viktor Yanukovych said he had no role in their deaths.

He said gunfire came from the opposition camp, not from riot police, and that responsibility for the high number of deaths lay with the opposition.

“I personally never gave any orders to shoot,” he said.

“As far as I know the weapons were never given to those special troops who took part in defending the state buildings and the state bodies – they just complied with their orders.”

He added: “My principles which I always follow are that no authority, no power is worth a drop of blood.”

Unrest in Ukraine began late last year when Viktor Yanukovych rejected an association agreement with the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia.

The interim government in Kiev that took power after Viktor Yanukovych fled has scheduled a presidential and some mayoral elections for May 25.

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NATO has decided to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation with Russia.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region was the gravest threat to European security for a generation.

There could be no business as usual, he added.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen had earlier categorically denied reports that Russia was pulling its forces back from its border with Ukraine.

Moscow is believed to have massed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s eastern border in recent days, causing alarm in Kiev and the West.

Foreign ministers from the 28-member NATO bloc, gathering in Brussels for their first meeting since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, issued a strongly worded statement in which they condemned Russia’s “illegal” annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

NATO has decided to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation with Russia

NATO has decided to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation with Russia

They agreed to suspend NATO co-operation with Russia in a number of bodies but added that dialogue in the NATO-Russia Council could continue, as necessary, at ambassadorial level and above “to allow us to exchange views, first and foremost on this crisis. We will review Nato’s relations with Russia at our next meeting in June”.

They are also looking at options including situating permanent military bases in the Baltic states to reassure members in Eastern Europe. Russia’s actions in Ukraine have caused concern in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which were part of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

NATO jets will take part in air patrols in the region later in a routine exercise that analysts say has taken on added significance due to the crisis. Several NATO countries, including the UK, US and France, have offered additional military aircraft.

Announcing the formal suspension of ties, Anders Fogh Rasmussen said NATO’s message was clear: it stood by its allies, it stood by Ukraine and it stood by the international system of rules that had developed in recent decades. He urged Russia to be part of a solution “respecting international law and Ukraine’s borders”.

He also said NATO would offer Ukraine greater access to alliance exercises and support the development of its military.

Answering questions from reporters, Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he expected NATO-Russia co-operation over Afghanistan – including counter-narcotics operations – to continue.

Ukrainian ministers were also in Brussels to meet their NATO counterparts. A joint NATO-Ukraine statement issued after their meeting announced that they would intensify co-operation and promote defense reforms in Ukraine through training and other programs.

In Moscow, the Russian foreign ministry warned Kiev against any attempts to join NATO, saying such efforts in the past had “led to a freezing of Russian-Ukrainian political contacts, a <<headache>> in NATO-Russia relations and… a deepening split within Ukrainian society”.

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel he had ordered a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from the border with eastern Ukraine.

However, Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters: “Unfortunately, I cannot confirm that Russia is withdrawing its troops. This is not what we are seeing.”

Meanwhile, Russian energy firm Gazprom has announced an increase of the price it charges Ukraine for gas from Tuesday.

Gazprom’s chief executive Alexei Miller said the price of Russian gas for Ukraine had gone up to $385.5 per 1,000 cubic metres in the second quarter of 2014 from the previous rate of $268.5.

Alexei Miller added that Ukraine’s unpaid gas bills to Russia stood at $1.7 billion.

According to the German government, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has ordered a “partial withdrawal” of troops from the border with Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin informed German Chancellor Angela Merkel of the move in a telephone conversation, according to her office.

Thousands of Russian soldiers are still said to be deployed along the border.

Earlier, Ukraine condemned a visit to Crimea by Russia’s PM Dmitry Medvedev and a delegation of government ministers.

Vladimir Putin has ordered a "partial withdrawal" of troops from the border with Ukraine

Vladimir Putin has ordered a “partial withdrawal” of troops from the border with Ukraine (photo Getty Images)

A foreign ministry spokesman in Kiev said the highest-level trip to the Black Sea peninsula by officials from Moscow since its annexation by Russia was a “crude violation” of international rules.

A note protesting against the presence of an official in “the territory of another state without preliminary agreement” had been sent, he added.

Crimeans voted to leave Ukraine for Russia on March 16, in a referendum condemned as illegal by the UN General Assembly.

Dmitry Medvedev announced that he would make Crimea a special economic zone, with tax breaks and reduced bureaucracy to attract investors.

He also vowed to quickly boost salaries and pensions, and to improve education, healthcare and local infrastructure.

Tensions between Russia and the West rose after the overthrow of pro-Kremlin Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February, following months of street protests.

Russia’s subsequent decision to annex Crimea triggered a crisis in relations.

A Kremlin statement did not mention a partial withdrawal, but said Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel had discussed “opportunities for international support for the restoration of stability” in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin had also told Angela Merkel that Ukraine had to enact constitutional reforms to ensure that the interests of all its regions were respected, and called for measures to end the “blockade” of Trans-Dniester, the statement added.

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US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have arrived in Paris for crisis talks on Ukraine.

The meeting was hastily arranged after President Vladimir Putin phoned President Barack Obama on Friday.

Russia has annexed Crimea and there are reports of thousands of Russian troops massed close to Ukraine’s borders.

Earlier Sergei Lavrov set out demands for a neutral and federal Ukraine, an idea Kiev called “full capitulation”.

However, Sergei Lavrov has categorically denied any plans for an invasion.

However, the Russian foreign minister has stressed Moscow will protect the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, after pro-EU protests in Kiev led to the ousting of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych.

John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov have arrived in Paris for crisis talks on Ukraine

John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov have arrived in Paris for crisis talks on Ukraine

On Sunday, the US ordered its top general in Europe to return early from a trip to Washington.

NATO’s supreme allied commander Europe, General Philip Breedlove, had been due to testify to Congress, but a Pentagon spokesman told Reuters his return was prudent “given the lack of transparency and intent from Russian leadership about their military movements across the border”.

Hours before the Paris talks were due to take place at the Russian ambassador’s residence, Sergei Lavrov told Russian state TV that Ukraine should come up with a new constitution “providing for a federal structure” and neutrality.

The Russian foreign minister said Moscow, the US and EU should act as a support group for Kiev to begin a nationwide dialogue that did not involve the “armed radicals”. Moscow claims that fascists have taken power in Ukraine, jeopardizing the safety of Russian speakers.

In an interview on Saturday, Sergei Lavrov said Russia had been deceived after being promised “there would be no movement of NATO military infrastructure closer to our borders”.

The Ukrainian foreign ministry said it deeply regretted Sergei Lavrov’s “patronizing” remarks.

“At the point of its automatic rifles, this aggressor demands only one thing – Ukraine’s full capitulation, its split and the destruction of Ukrainian statehood,” said a statement carried by Interfax-Ukraine news agency.

NATO’s outgoing Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned on Sunday that Russia’s government was “[flouting] the principle that every state is sovereign and free to choose its own fate”.

Vladimir Putin is also thought to be demanding that Washington accepts Crimea’s independence from Ukraine.

Separately, Moscow is keen to tackle the issue of Trans-Dniester, a pro-Russian separatist region of Moldova on the south-western border of Ukraine. It accuses Ukraine and Moldova of “blockading” the area while the EU and the US stay silent.

US officials are divided over whether Vladimir Putin is seeking to ease tensions or is still planning further military action.

The Pentagon believes Moscow has massed tens of thousands of troops close to Ukraine’s eastern border.

Food, medicines and a field hospital are said to be among the supplies moved into position, officials say, which would not be necessary for any spring military exercise.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has called President Barack Obama to discuss the US proposal for a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine, the White House announces.

Barack Obama suggested that Russia put a concrete response in writing, his spokesman said in a statement.

According to the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin suggested examining how the situation could be stabilized.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has sparked international condemnation.

Vladimir Putin has called Barack Obama to discuss the US proposal for a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin has called Barack Obama to discuss the US proposal for a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine

Barack Obama urged Vladimir Putin to avoid the build-up of forces on the Russian border with Ukraine.

The White House said the two countries’ foreign ministers would meet soon to discuss the next steps.

The US proposal was developed in consultation with Ukraine and other European countries.

Barack Obama received Vladimir Putin’s call in Saudi Arabia – the latest leg of a trip which also took him to Europe where the Ukraine crisis dominated discussions.

The Kremlin said in a statement that Vladimir Putin drew Barack Obama’s attention to “the continued rampage of extremists” in Kiev and various regions of Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin suggested examining possible steps the global community could take to help stabilize the situation, the Kremlin statement said.

Meanwhile in New York, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he had been assured by Vladimir Putin that the Russian leader “had no intention to make any military move”.

Russia’s reported troop movements near Ukraine’s eastern border – described as a “huge military build-up” by NATO – has triggered fears that Vladimir Putin’s interest in Ukraine is not limited to Crimea.

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The US and EU have decided to imposed “deeper sanctions” against Russia if there are “further incursions into Ukraine”.

President Barack Obama said “energy is obviously a central focus of our efforts”, acknowledging it “will have some impact on the global economy”.

Barack Obama was speaking after talks in Brussels with EU leaders Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy.

At a news conference the three men spoke of the special relationship between the transatlantic partners.

Barack Obama said: “The world is safer and more just when Europe and America stand as one.”

Herman Van Rompuy, European Council president, called it a “crucial” relationship.

Their talks at the headquarters of the 28-nation EU bloc also covered plans to finalize a transatlantic trade partnership, as well as efforts to tackle Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s chemical weapons.

Barack Obama praised the EU for the steps it had already taken – along with the US – to penalize Russia. These have included visa bans and asset freezes against a number of Russian officials.

Barack Obama was speaking after talks in Brussels with EU leaders Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy

Barack Obama was speaking after talks in Brussels with EU leaders Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy

He said those actions were taken after Russian forces moved in to annex Crimea, and they now must consider “the potential for additional, deeper sanctions” should Moscow attempt to do the same in other parts of Ukraine.

“We recognize that in order for Russia to feel the impact of these sanctions, it will have some impact on the global economy as well as on all the countries represented here today,” Barack Obama said.

Acknowledging that some EU countries are more dependent than others on Russia for energy, he said “this entire event has pointed to the need for Europe to look at how it can further diversify its energy sources”.

Barack Obama said NATO must remain a “regular presence” in those eastern European countries who are now feeling vulnerable to possible Russian intervention. He also voiced concern at the falling defense budgets of some countries.

Herman Van Rompuy called Russia’s actions in Crimea “a disgrace in the 21st century, and we will not recognize it”.

Ukraine’s southern peninsula of Crimea was annexed by Russia earlier this month after a referendum which Kiev and the West considered illegal.

It follows the ousting of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych at the end of February following months of bloody protests over his decision to seek greater ties with Moscow rather than the EU.

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine remain high. Moscow accused Ukrainian officials on Wednesday of preventing Russian commercial pilots and crew from disembarking at Kiev International Airport.

This is Barack Obama’s first official visit to the EU headquarters in Brussels.

He began his trip to Belgium with a visit to a cemetery in Flanders, where US soldiers killed in World War One are buried.

He paid tribute to fallen US soldiers at the American Cemetery and Memorial in Waregem, to mark 100 years since the start of WW1. Belgian King Philippe and Prime Minister Elio di Rupo were also in attendance.

Following his talks with Herman Van Rompuy and EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Barack Obama will meet NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

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Russia and Ukraine are holding talks for the first time since Russia’s move into Crimea triggered a diplomatic crisis.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says his country is unfazed by the prospect of being expelled from the G8.

Other members of the group of industrialized countries have agreed not to hold a planned summit in Russia.

The move comes as Ukrainian troops are leaving Crimea after Russian forces seized military bases in the region.

Earlier this month, Russia annexed Crimea after a referendum considered illegal by Kiev and the West.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has held talks with his Ukrainian counterpart, Andriy Deshchytsia, for the first time since Crimea annexation

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has held talks with his Ukrainian counterpart, Andriy Deshchytsia, for the first time since Crimea annexation

Sergei Lavrov met Ukraine’s interim Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia on the sidelines on a security summit in The Hague on Monday.

“We set forth our vision to establish good national dialogue taking into account all residents of Ukraine,” Sergei Lavrov told a news conference.

He also said he saw “no great tragedy” if Moscow was expelled from the Group of Eight (G8) club of leading nations for its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

“If our Western partners think that this format has outlived itself, then so be it. At the very least, we are not trying to cling on to this format,” he told reporters.

The remaining members of the powerful body, who also met on the sidelines of the nuclear summit, agreed that the planned G8 summit in Russia would be called off because Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine.

Several G8 members have also called for Russia’s membership of the group to be suspended.

Secretary of State John Kerry also met Sergei Lavrov on Monday and expressed “strong concern” about the massing of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border, Reuters quoted a senior US state department official as saying.

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Ukraine’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov has ordered the withdrawal of armed forces from Crimea.

Ukraine’s decision was taken because of Russian threats to the lives of military staff and their families, Oleksandr Turchynov announced.

Russian troops have seized most of Ukraine’s bases in Crimea, including the naval base at Feodosia.

Earlier this month, Russia annexed Crimea after a referendum which Ukraine and the West considered illegal.

The G7 group of industrialized countries is to consider a collective response to the crisis during talks in The Hague.

Ukraine's interim President Oleksandr Turchynov has ordered the withdrawal of armed forces from Crimea

Ukraine’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov has ordered the withdrawal of armed forces from Crimea

G7 leaders are meeting on the sidelines of a long-planned summit on global threats to nuclear security.

“The national security and defense council has reached a decision, under instructions from the defense ministry, to conduct a redeployment of military units stationed in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea,” Oleksandr Turchynov said.

“The cabinet of ministers has instructions to resettle the families of soldiers as well as everyone else who today is forced to leave their homes under the pressure and aggression of the Russian army’s occupying forces.”

The announcement came shortly after Russian troops captured the naval base at Feodosia, the third such takeover in 48 hours.

Defense spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said the Russians had attacked the base from two directions using armored personnel carriers and stun grenades.

Feodosia was one of the last remaining bases under Kiev’s control, but had been surrounded by Russian forces for some time.

Two other military bases were stormed and seized on Friday.

Russian defense officials said earlier that the tricolor of Russia had been hoisted at 189 Ukrainian military units and facilities in Crimea.