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Russia and NATO Trade Barbs as Pro-Russia Forces Gain Ground in Ukraine

Russia will review its military strategy in response to a new “readiness action plan” devised by NATO, as rebels erase recent gains by the Ukrainian army.

by Harriet Salem
Sep 2 2014, 9:05pm

Photo via AP/Mstislav Chernov

As pro-Russia forces gain the upper hand in eastern Ukraine, an international war of words is reaching fever pitch as the government in Moscow increasingly criticizes NATO and its allies.

On Tuesday, while officials began to gather in Wales for this week's NATO summit, Russia announced that it was reviewing its military strategy in response to a new "readiness action plan" being devised by the intergovernmental alliance, which will include a rapid-reaction unit capable of being speedily deployed to Eastern Europe.

"The Readiness Action Plan responds to Russia's aggressive behavior," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Brussels on Monday, "but it equips the Alliance to respond to all security challenges, wherever they may arise."

The rapid-reaction unit will be manned by several thousand rotating troops able to respond by both sea and air, and will include Special Forces.

"This force can travel light, but strike hard if needed," Rasmussen said.

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The announcement coincided with a report in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in which Russian President Vladimir Putin was said to have asserted to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso that, if he wanted to, he could "take Kiev in two weeks."

The Kremlin has not denied the remark, but a Russian diplomat claimed on Tuesday that whatever words Putin had used were taken out of context.

"Whether these words were said or not, in my viewpoint, the quote given is taken out of context, and it had an absolutely different meaning," Yuri Ushakov, a foreign policy adviser to Putin, said in response to the leaked conversation, according to the Interfax news agency. Ushakov added that if Barroso was behind the revelation, he felt it "unworthy of a serious political figure."

Russia's envoy to the European Union said that the conversation had been recorded, and gave Barroso a two-day ultimatum to "dispel any misunderstandings."

Amid the mounting tension, on Tuesday Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denounced the recent introduction of a bill in Ukraine's parliament that would repeal the country's "non-bloc status," potentially allowing it to join NATO.

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"Support for the strengthening of the party of war in Kiev is actively being fueled and stirred up by Washington and certain European capitals," Lavrov said, arguing that the Ukrainian parliament's proposed bill undermined the peace talks underway in Belarus.

Mikhail Popov, the deputy head of the Kremlin's advisory security council, also sharply criticized the idea of expanding NATO.

"The fact that the military infrastructure of NATO member states is getting closer to our borders, including via enlargement, will preserve its place as one of the external threats for the Russian Federation," he said.

Meanwhile, pro-Russia rebels are pushing a new front in the country's southeast and have claimed a number of significant victories in contested territories around the rebel-held cities of Luhansk and Donetsk.

In the last five days, rebels have seized the small but militarily strategic coastal town of Novoazovskto, which lies east of the port city of Mariupol, and a corridor of land running east through the village of Markyne all the way to the Russian border.

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The government in Kiev and its Western allies have claimed that the new insurgent offensive has received substantial backing from Moscow, with upwards of 1,000 Russian soldiers operating inside Ukraine's borders.

Col. Andriy Lysenko, a Ukrainian military spokesman, claimed in a press conference on Tuesday that Russian troops had been spotted in Donetsk, Luhansk, and elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, but offered no evidence.

Conclusive proof of the presence of Russian troops has proved elusive despite anecdotal reports of their operation and satellite images from NATO purporting to show military equipment moving into Ukraine from Russia.

A Ukrainian separatist leader recently admitted that Russian soldiers are assisting rebels in the country, but claimed that they are volunteering while on vacation.

The counteroffensive in Ukraine's southeast appears to have caught underprepared government forces off-guard, leaving them vulnerable on several fronts. In the last three days, as the government has shifted its already stretched forces in order to defend the Azov coast, the rebels have managed to win back other territories where the Ukrainian military had made significant advances.

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Ilovaysk and Starobeshevo, two towns southeast of Donetsk, were on Tuesday being secured by insurgents who appeared to have won them back after several days of fierce fighting.

In Rozdolne, a village south of Starobeshevo, two abandoned cars and a minibus riddled with bullets were the remnants of a gunfight between rebels and the Ukrainian army that had taken place the previous night, according to locals who spoke with VICE News. They said that the area was back under the control of the Donetsk People's Republic after government forces retreated.

Lying on one of the two main routes stretching down to Mariupol, the insurgents' newly-gained ground south of Donetsk leaves the port city potentially open to an offensive from the north as well as the east, where pro-Kiev volunteers spent the weekend helping soldiers dig trenches.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem