Ukraine Liveblog Day 46: Russia Pulls Representative to NATO

April 4, 2014
Dark blue: Members of NATO Blue: Members of NATO, but not of the EU, Light blue: NATO membership action plan nations, Red: Russia | Wikipedia & @TheDailyFreedom

During the Cold War, Canada and NATO had diplomatic relations with Russia, and the United States cooperated with Russia to explore outer-space. With today’s news that Russia is pulling its military representative to NATO, relations between Russia and the West are arguably worse than they’ve been in more than a generation.

Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.

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Below we will be making regular updates throughout the day. Be sure to visit or refresh the page often

1948 GMT: The American fast-food chain McDonald’s will close all of its restaurants in Crimea. The chain is already being threatened with retribution by some in the Russian State Duma:

The company’s decision was welcomed by the deputy speaker of the Russian parliament, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, known for his anti-Western rhetoric, who demanded that McDonald’s pull its business out of Russia entirely.

“It would be good if they closed here too … if they disappeared for good. Pepsi-Cola would be next,” Russian media quoted Zhirinovsky as saying.

Zhirinovsky, whose nationalist Liberal Democratic party largely backs President Vladimir Putin in parliament, said the party would organize pickets at McDonald’s restaurants across the country.

McDonald’s, which currently operates more than 400 restaurants in Russia, was the first international fast-food chain to tap the Russian market when it opened in Moscow’s Pushkin Square before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

1848 GMT: The Russian MICEX Index closed up today, with a increase of 1.2%. The MICEX is now at its highest point since February when the Russian markets collapsed due to fears of Russian expansion and a global backlash:

INDEXCF Quote   MICEX Index   Bloomberg april 4

While certain Western tycoons have debated whether a quick buck can be made by buying shares of Russian stock while they’re low and then turning them over, Business Insider has published a far-more mature analysis of Russia’s economy. The headline: Russia’s Growth Was Already Slowing—Then Came Crimea

The tensions over Crimea are the latest in a long list of problems that have led to economic slowdown and capital exodus. The expansion of Russia’s $2 trillion economy decelerated for a fourth year in 2013, after consumer spending fell and investment sagged along with demand for energy. State-run VTB Capital forecasts the economy will post zero growth this year. Russia is the world’s most corrupt major economy, ranking alongside Pakistan and Nicaragua at 127 out of 176 nations in the annual Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International. Educated middle-class Russians such as Sokolova are voting with their feet. In recent weeks, inquiries by professionals from Russia seeking refuge in eastern Europe have jumped, says Katya Ponomareva, who runs a consultancy on investments in Latvia and Bulgaria.

The capital flight echoes the aftermath of Putin’s last military foray into a former Soviet republic, Georgia, in August 2008, a month before Lehman Brothers collapsed. From the onset of the war with Georgia through February 2009, investors pulled at least $290 billion out of the country, estimates BNP Paribas (BNP:FP ).

1838 GMT: Russia has cancelled its preparation for the G8 conference that was supposed to take place in Sochi. Which is not surprising, as no one but Russia was going to it. Still, Russia is framing the cancellation carefully. The message — it wasn’t Russia that was unwilling to meet:

“It is clear that if the main event of the G8 year does not take place, we see little sense in holding others, although the Russian presidency program that at the turn of the current year had been approved by the colleagues in the G8 was rather ambitious,” [Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov] said.

“It’s a pity of course that the colleagues in a number of capitals ‘under command’ from Washington have seriously damaged this time-tested and generally rather viable collective form of interaction on many important political and economic issues,” the diplomat continued. “However, we also see certain pluses in the current situation. One of them – the fast growing steady trend towards the formation of a truly multipolar world in which there is no place for the ‘commanders’ and ‘subordinates’, and where problem solution methods are worked out based only and exclusively on the true balance of interests.

1824 GMT: Two different rallies were held in the same square today in the southern city of Odessa (map) where Euromaidan protesters cried for the resignation of the interim Mayor and pro-Russian crowds called for a referendum on either independence or greater autonomy. The Kyiv Post reports:

About 100 activists who support the EuroMaidan Revolution that ousted President Viktor Yanukvoych confronted a similar-sized crowd of separatists who support Russia on a square near City Hall in the southern Black Sea port city.

At issue in the April 4 rally was an attempt by City Council members to oust interim Mayor Oleh Bryndak, who wants Odessa to secede from Ukraine. But the officials didn’t have a quorum and so ended the meeting. Bryndak, who was a secretary of City Council, became interim mayor on Nov. 4 after the previous Odessa mayor, Oleksiy Kostusev, resigned. A mayoral election will take place on May 25, the same day as Ukraine’s presidential vote and the election for Kyiv mayor.

Hundreds of police officers stood in two lines to separate the two groups and prevent clashes between them.

Kyiv Post interviewed members of both crowds, further illustrating the deep divides in part of Ukrainian society.

1804 GMT: Today Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Moldovan Deputy Prime Minister, and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration, Natalia Gherman. Russian Foreign Ministry’s twitter account frames the meeting:

The two ministers stressed that “further expansion of trade and economic exchanges, closer cooperation in the humanitarian area are in the interests of both countries,” the Russian Foreign Ministry reported after the meeting.

Transdniestria is a small strip of land on the eastern border with Ukraine that many have warned could be the next target for Russian annexation. A large group of ethnic Russians live there, and Russia has expressed concerns about how they are being treated.

Meanwhile, Moldovan special forces battalions are holding military drills in the capital city to prepare for a possible Russian attack, and the EU has continued to fast-track Moldovan association with the EU. Yesterday they announced that at the end of the month Moldovans will no longer need visas to travel through the Schengen passport-free area:

“I want to tell the sceptics, who until recently have not believed that we will travel freely to the European Union, that the prospect of joining the European Union will be recognised in the same way,” Moldova’s prime minister Iurie Leanca said in a speech to the parliament in Chisinau on Thursday.

1741 GMT: Ambassador Gate, Russian edition: two Russian ambassadors have been caught in an embarrassing situation, as leaked audio, reportedly from an obscenity-laden phone call, captures them conspiring to annex large parts of Europe – and Miami. The Guardian reports:

The five-minute recording, laden with expletives, has been posted on YouTube and claims to be a telephone call between Igor Chubarov, Russia’s ambassador to Eritrea, and Sergei Bakharev, the ambassador to Zimbabwe and Malawi. It has not been authenticated.

“We’ve got Crimea, but that’s not fucking all folks. In the future we’ll damn well take your Catalonia and Venice, and also Scotland and Alaska,” says the voice labelled as Chubarov, interspersing his speech with laughter and punning the word for Scotland in Russian so it sounds like “Cattleland”.

After this, Chubarov says Russia will make a move for “all those fucking border countries”, such as Estonia, as well as Romania and Bulgaria. He adds that the head of the EU mission to Eritrea had jokily said in a recent conversation that he wished Russia would “take back” Romania and Bulgaria.

In the end, the ambassadors concur that it is probably better to leave Bulgaria, Romania and the “Baltic shit” in the EU for now, and Bakharev says it would be more interesting to go for California or Miami.

Sources in Moscow who spoke to The Guardian seem to have basically laughed the tape off as a joke, and reminded the reporters that these ambassadors are much lower in rank than US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland. Maria Zakharova, deputy spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, made a sort of soft denial, claiming that she could not identify the men in the recording.

1538 GMT: When push comes to shove, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has said that he will take Moscow’s side in the conflict with Ukraine, and he’ll clear all his own actions through the Kremlin first. RFE/RL reports:

“No matter what I do today — talking to Ukraine, the West, the East, and so on — when it comes to Russia, I will not take a single step without first receiving the consent of the leadership of the Russian Federation.

Lukashenka also attempted to drown any speculation that Belarus was attempting to use Russia’s standoff with Ukraine to its own advantage.

“If Russia needs us to work for it in Ukraine, we’ll do it. If Russia needs us to travel to a distant land for its benefit, we’ll do it.” He added, “It’s in the interests of our brother Russia, and in the interests of Belarus, and there’s no contradiction in that.”

1516 GMT: Lithuania says that NATO is now scrambling jets at least once a week because Russia is now regularly flying jets too close to the border:

“The number of incidents of NATO jets being scrambled to identify Russian Federation aircraft has increased in January and February this year,” minister of defence spokesman Vaidotas Linkus told Reuters by email.

NATO jets were scrambled about 40 times in both 2012 and 2013. In 2004, jets were scrambled only once.

1442 GMT: Some breaking news:

1406 GMT: US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said that NATO may send additional brigades to Europe, perhaps to Poland some have speculated, in response to increased Russian aggression. Bloomberg reports:

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has asked its top military commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, to study “a number of new possibilities, new measures, new options that we and NATO should consider,” Hagel said in an interview yesterday in Honolulu with Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Television.

Asked if those included permanently stationing a third brigade of 5,000 troops in Europe, Hagel said, “That’s all part of the measures that could be considered.”

Hagel also clarified the situation with Russian troops on the border:

“There are troops that are moving around, we know that, but no indications of any significant movements of those large troop deployments along the border, away from the border,” he said.

1346 GMT: Russia has again increased the price of gas sold to Ukraine. Gas is now 80% more expensive than it was this past winter.

Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said the latest move, two weeks after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region, was unacceptable and warned that he expected Russia to increase pressure on Kiev by limiting supply to his country.

“There is no reason why Russia would raise the gas price for Ukraine … other than one – politics,” Yatseniuk told Reuters in an interview in the Ukrainian capital Kiev.

“We expect Russia to go further in terms of pressure on the gas front, including limiting gas supplies to Ukraine.”

While Ukraine seems like it may fight the decision in the international courts, this is another example of how Ukraine’s dependence on Russia will be a hard habit to break, as Ukraine still depends on Russia for about 50% of its gas imports.

1315 GMT: NATO maintains that Russia has not pulled back its troops from the borders with Russia, and now Russia says that it is pulling its military representative to NATO and may have to send even more troops west:

Col. Gen. Valery Yevnevich will return to Moscow in light of NATO’s actions, official news agency ITAR-Tass said, citing Russian Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov’s remarks to journalists.

“The policy of (deliberately) whipping up tensions is not our choice. Nonetheless, we see no possibility to continue military cooperation with NATO in a routine regime,” Antonov is quoted as saying.

He accused NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen of making “confrontational statements” at the meeting of NATO foreign ministers early this week and questioned NATO steps to bolster its presence in Eastern Europe.

Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also said Moscow wanted answers from NATO regarding activities in Eastern Europe after the Western military alliance said it would step up defenses for its eastern members.

Is Russia still poised to invade Ukraine? This heightened rhetoric may be the precursor to such an action. Yet, it’s important to note two things:

1) Russia is throwing its weight around, and is using threat of war to its advantage to pressure countries like Ukraine, Estonia, and Moldova to increase autonomy of its regions, which Russia believes will give it more political and economic reach without ever firing a shot. In Russia’s calculations, the military is always a more powerful tool than the sum of its guns.

2) If Russia does invade, things may not go quite as well for Russia as one might expect. Two articles on The Interpreter highlight this. This first, by Andrew Bowen, examines Russia’s military preparedness and argues that the Crimean invasion went so well because Russia sent its elite forces. The rest of Russia’s military is in disrepair.

Read Is Russia’s Military Really As Good As It Was in Crimea?

The second article is by Paul Goble, who cites experts in Moscow who believe that China will annex territory from Russia should the Kremlin send too many forces west.

Read No Basis for Russian Optimism about a Quick Military Victory in Ukraine, Moscow Expert Says