TIME Ukraine

Moscow and NATO Trade Barbs as Fighting Intensifies in Ukraine

UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CRISIS-MARIUPOL
Azif Alikberov recovers in a hospital after being wounded as fighting erupted in Mariupol, Ukraine on Jan. 26, 2014. Oleksandr Stashevskiy —AFP/Getty Images

Putin continues to blame a "NATO foreign legion" for the war in Ukraine, while the alliance says Russia is responsible for the resumed fighting

Clashes continued to escalate in Ukraine’s war-torn Donbas region Monday after a weekend of fierce fighting and shelling in the country’s southeast rendered a five-month-old peace accord all but dead.

On Monday, pro-Russian insurgents encircled a government garrison in the town of Debaltseve that lies along a main road and rail route between two vital rebel strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk, according to Reuters.

The Ukrainian government has declared the imposition of emergency rule in the embattled Donetsk and Luhansk regions and placed the entire country on “full readiness,” according to President Petro Poroshenko’s office.

Moscow continued to saddle Poroshenko’s office with responsibility for the conflict this week, and chided his administration for refusing to engineer a political settlement with Kremlin-aligned forces that have effectively seceded from the state.

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Kiev of relying on a “foreign legion” to wage war against separatist militias.

“Essentially, this is not an army but is a foreign legion, in this particular case, a NATO foreign legion, which is not pursuing Ukraine’s national interests of course,” Putin told students at St. Petersburg’s Mining University.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg later dismissed Putin’s accusation as “nonsense” following an emergency meeting with the alliance’s ambassadors and Ukrainian diplomats in Brussels — the first such session in six months.

At a brief press conference following the meeting, Stoltenberg lambasted the Kremlin for allegedly providing insurgent forces in southeast Ukraine with advanced heavy artillery, tanks, armored vehicles and manpower in recent weeks.

“We call on Russia to stop its support for the separatists immediately,” he told reporters.

Over the weekend, Human Rights Watch accused Russian-backed forces of launching a “salvo of unguided Grad rockets” that struck the government-held port of Mariupol and resulted in dozens of deaths. The organization described the assault as one of the most lethal attacks on civilians since the pro-Russian uprising first erupted in southeastern Ukraine last April.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs claims that more than 5,000 people have been killed and at least 900,000 displaced since fighting first flared. An additional 600,000 people are believed to have fled the country.

TIME Spain

At Least 10 Dead After Greek F-16 Crashes in Spain During NATO Training

Spain Military Plane Crash
Smoke rises from a military base after a plane crash in Albacete, Spain on Jan. 26, 2015. Josema Moreno—AP

(MADRID) — A Greek F-16 fighter jet crashed into other planes on the ground during NATO training in southeastern Spain Monday, killing at least 10 people, Spain’s Defense Ministry said.

Another 13 people were injured in the incident at the Los Llanos base, which sent flames and a plume of black smoke billowing into the air, a Defense Ministry official said.

Most of the victims were not believed to be Spaniards, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of ministry rules preventing him from being named.

The two-seat jet was taking off when it crashed into an area of the base where other planes involved in the NATO exercise were parked, the ministry said in a statement.

Emergency crews were working to douse the blaze and determine how much damage there was to other planes involved in the NATO exercise, the ministry said.

A NATO spokeswoman declined to disclose details, referring questions to Spanish and Greek military officials.

The Spanish ministry said the jet that crashed was taking part in a NATO training exercise called the Tactical Leadership Program.

According to a U.S. Air Force Website, TLP was formed in 1978 by NATO’s Central Region air forces to advance their tactical capabilities and produce tactics, techniques and procedures that improve multi-national tactical air operations.

The first TLP course was located at Fuerstenfeldbruck Air Base, Germany. It has been based at the Spanish base since June 2009.

TIME Ukraine

John Kerry Slams Rebels as Fighting in Ukraine Spirals Further Out of Control

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to the press after a working lunch with E.U. High Representative Federica Mogherini at the U.S. Department of State in Washington on Jan. 21, 2015 Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

Clashes between the Ukrainian military and pro-Moscow rebels have rapidly escalated this week

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has condemned pro-Russian rebels battling the Ukrainian military for participating in a “landgrab” after occupying new territory in clear violation of a September peace accord.

After a brief lull in hostilities, fighting between forces loyal to Kiev and pro-Kremlin rebels spiked drastically this week along several fronts. Insurgents appear to be seizing larger swaths of land thanks to heavy weaponry and the alleged presence of Russian regular forces.

“This is a very blatant landgrab, and it is in direct contravention to the Minsk agreements which they signed up to,” Kerry told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.

The Minsk Protocol, which was signed by representatives from rebel militias along with Ukrainian and Russian officials, called for the orderly withdrawal of foreign fighters and heavy weaponry from the battlefields in southeastern Ukraine. However, the plan continues to be consistently ignored, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of combatants amid renewed fighting.

Earlier on Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated claims that Russia continues to supply men and military hardware to insurgent militias battling the Ukrainian military.

“For several months, we have seen the presence of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. We are also seeing a substantial increase in the number of Russian heavy equipment in eastern Ukraine,” said Stoltenberg during a meeting with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg this week. “This does not contribute to a peaceful solution of the conflict.

Following a meeting at the U.N. Security Council, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power lambasted the Kremlin via Twitter for their alleged role in backing the separatists and denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin for overseeing an “occupation plan” rather than backing the peace accords.

During a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Moscow of sending an estimated 9,000 troops across the border into his nation’s conflict-riven Donbas region.

“The country is facing the aggression not only regarding Crimea, but also regarding the significant part of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. About 9,000 Russian [troops] are in the territory of Ukraine,” Poroshenko told the assembled heads of state and economists.

However, Russia continues to deny that it is providing direct support to separatist fighters and balked at Washington’s efforts to contain the country through myriad sanctions.

“Only the people of Ukraine without any foreign interference must determine their future,” Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a press conference in Moscow on Wednesday. “For its part, Russia will continue to assist the creation of favorable conditions to settle Ukraine’s formidable problems in this spirit.”

TIME Afghanistan

Stray Rocket Kills 26 at Afghan Wedding Party

Rocket fired amid fighting between Taliban insurgents and Afghan soldiers

(KABUL, Afghanistan) — A rocket fired amid fighting between Taliban insurgents and Afghan soldiers killed at least 26 people at a nearby wedding party Thursday, authorities said, a grim end to a year that saw the end of the 13-year U.S.-led combat mission there.

The rocket struck a house in southern Helman province’s Sangin District, where Afghan security forces have been battling insurgents in the six months since U.S. forces withdrew from the area.

Police spokesman Fareed Ahmad Obaid said the rocket wounded at least 45 people. Bashir Ahmad Shakir, a provincial council member, said the death toll could be up to 30 killed with as many as 60 wounded.

Abdul Haleem, a cousin of the bride who was hosting her wedding, said that nine of his children were missing after the rocket struck his house as guests waited outside for the bride to arrive.

“Nine children of mine are missing; I just collected body parts,” he said. “I don’t know whether it’s my children or someone else.”

Wednesday marked the final day of the U.S. and NATO’s combat mission, which began with the invasion that overthrew the Taliban after the Sept. 11 attacks. Al-Qaida then enjoyed safe haven in Afghanistan, where the Taliban ruled according to its own violent interpretation of Islamic law.

Afghanistan’s own 350,000-member-strong forces officially take responsibility for security starting Thursday. The insurgency has been testing the resolve of the army and police, who officials say are holding their ground even as the number of attacks increases and casualties soar.

This year was the deadliest of the war for government forces and civilians, with around 5,000 Afghan soldiers and police killed, officials have said. An estimated 10,000 civilians have been killed or wounded, the highest annual toll since the U.N. started keeping figures in 2008.

In much of the south and east, government forces are facing off against the Taliban without the assistance of coalition air support or medical evacuations. They have taken heavy casualties but have thus far prevented the Taliban from seizing large swaths of territory. Interior Ministry spokesman Seddiq Seddiqi said the insurgents had “failed to capture even one district.”

Afghan forces may also receive a boost from warming ties with neighboring Pakistan. After the school massacre in the Pakistani town of Peshawar earlier this month — in which more than 140 people were killed, mainly children — the two U.S. allies vowed to work together to combat insurgents on both sides of the porous border.

President Ashraf Ghani, who took office in September, has said he wants to bring peace to his country after more than 30 years of continuous war. He has bolstered ties with China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as part of an effort to isolate the Taliban and bring them to the negotiating table.

First Vice President Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum said Wednesday that he had reached an agreement with some 300 Taliban fighters in the northern Jawzjan province to lay down their arms.

Fighting continued elsewhere in the country. In the eastern Nangahar province, gunmen shot dead a police officer and two civilians after security forces stopped their car and motorcycle, both of which carried explosives. Provincial police chief Gen. Fazel Ahmad Sherzad said police suspected that they were on their way to attack government offices.

In central Uruzgan province, a police officer killed three of his fellow officers and wounded five while they ate dinner Tuesday, spokesman Dost Mohammad Nayab said. The gunman fled after the shooting and authorities had no motive for the attack.

TIME Ukraine

Ukraine Inches Closer to NATO in Important Vote

UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CRISIS
Deputies of Ukrainian Parliament vote for a bill dropping Ukraine's non-aligned status in Kiev on December 23, 2014. Genya Savilov—AFP/Getty Images

The country's status is no longer "non-aligned"

Ukraine took a major step on Tuesday in a parliamentary vote to drop its “non-aligned” status, which made the country ineligible to participate in military alliances and war—a status more famously upheld by Switzerland. As a result, Ukraine’s government could now apply to join NATO.

The move has angered the Russian government, which pressured Ukraine into adopting neutrality in 2010 and has said that the country must remain out of any bloc as a condition of peace in eastern Ukraine, where 4,700 have died in a pro-Russian uprising in the past eight months.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev took a strong stance against the vote, saying that an application to join NATO would “turn Ukraine into a potential military opponent for Russia,” and warned that the vote—as well as new sanctions against Russia signed by the U.S.—will both have “very negative consequences.”

[AFP]

TIME europe

U.S. Envoy Blasts Kremlin Ahead of NATO Meeting

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US Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute gives a press conference on Dec. 1, 2014, at the organization's headquarters in Brussels. John Thys—AFP/Getty Images

The war of words between the Western military alliance and Moscow heated up ahead of a NATO gathering in Brussels on Tuesday

U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute accused the Russian military on Monday of engaging in irresponsible aerial maneuvers that put civilian aircraft in unnecessary danger.

The envoy’s remarks follow the alliance’s public announcement in late October that accused the Russian military of conducting an unprecedented number of unannounced aerial forays into Europe’s skies. NATO says it has scrambled its own aircraft over 400 times in response to Russian incursions this year — a more than 50% increase than the total number during 2013.

“These Russian actions are irresponsible, pose a threat to civilian aviation and demonstrate that Russia is flagrantly violating international norms,” said Lute during a press conference in Brussels ahead of a NATO foreign ministers meeting on Tuesday, according to Reuters.

NATO says Russian forces have repeatedly refused to submit flight plans to civilian air traffic control stations when flying exercises and, in multiple instances, have flown with their transponders turned off.

The Kremlin’s alleged indifference toward civilian aviation procedures is seen as particularly concerning to NATO members following Washington’s insistence that a Russian-supplied weapons system was responsible for downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in southeastern Ukraine this summer. Russia vehemently denies responsibility.

As relations between Moscow and the alliance continue to sour, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg boasted on Monday of the organization’s increased presence in Eastern Europe.

This year has been one of “aggression, crisis and conflict. But NATO stands strong,” said Stoltenberg during a press conference. “Russia’s aggressive actions have undermined Euro-Atlantic security.”

Meanwhile, the Kremlin unleashed its own criticisms of NATO and panned the alliance for destabilizing northern Europe and the Baltics.

“They are trying to shake up the most stable region in the world, which is Europe’s north,” Alexei Meshkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, told his nation’s Interfax news agency. “Those endless military exercises, rebasing of aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the Baltic nations. This is the reality, a very negative one.”

NATO has been steadily increasing its defensive capabilities in Eastern Europe following Russia’s forceful annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in March. In September, the alliance unveiled plans to build a new expeditionary outfit that would be able to “travel light but strike hard if needed.” On Monday, NATO’s secretary general said he expected the “spearhead force” to be ready by 2016.

TIME Afghanistan

London Condemns Kabul Bombing as Taliban Ups Pressure on Afghan Gov’t

AFGHANISTAN-UNREST
Afghan policemen stand guard at the site of a suicide attack at a foreign guesthouse in Kabul on November 27, 2014. Shah Marai — AFP/Getty Images

The militant group appears to be stepping up its campaign of violence in the Afghan capital as foreign forces prepare to withdrawal

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has condemned the Taliban’s “appalling” suicide attack on a vehicle belonging to the country’s embassy on Thursday that killed six people, including two individuals working for the U.K. mission.

“I am deeply saddened to confirm that a British national civilian security team member and an Afghan national working for the embassy were killed in the incident,” said Hammond in a statement. “We will not allow such inhumanity to deter us from continuing our partnership with the Government of Afghanistan.”

The assault on the British convoy was followed by another attack by two Taliban suicide bombers at a foreign guesthouse in a high-end neighborhood in central Kabul, where myriad embassies and international organizations reside. One foreign national was reportedly injured in the blast and an ensuing gun battle.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for both bombings and described the ambush of the British embassy vehicle as a strike against “foreign invading forces,” reports Reuters.

Thursday’s blasts come as the Taliban appears to be orchestrating an increasing number of acts of sabotage and violence against foreign installations across the Afghan capital, just as a lion’s share of the international troops stationed in the country prepare to pullout after 13 years of war. In the last 10 days alone, Kabul has been rocked by at least eight separate blasts, according to Agence France-Presse.

Earlier in the week, NATO confirmed that two foreign soldiers fighting with the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force were killed on Monday after a roadside bomb detonated near a military convoy traveling in Kabul.

Amid the uptick in violence are signs U.S. President Barack Obama is reevaluating his earlier promise to end combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of the year. The New York Times reported late last week that the White House’s calculus in the country appears to have shifted, after a new plan was authorized that will allow American troops to continue fighting Taliban insurgents there well into 2015.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: November 26

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. A Baltimore all-girls high school robotics team is bucking the trend for women in STEM education.

By Andrew Zaleski in the Baltimore Sun

2. The first Thanksgiving wasn’t a celebration of bounty, but “a refusal to be defeated by what so gravely threatened.” Today, we need the same.

By James Carroll in the Boston Globe

3. Congress — yes, that Congress — is about to pass a vital update to the Freedom of Information Act.

By Jason Leopold at Vice News

4. Discrimination against LGBT people isn’t just a civil rights violation, it’s bad economic policy.

By M. V. Lee Badgett at the New America Foundation

5. The truth is out about Russia. The EU must focus on the Balkans and think about the future.

By Judy Dempsey in RealClearWorld

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Ukraine

Russia Wants a ‘100% Guarantee’ That Ukraine Won’t Join NATO

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with members of the All-Russia Popular Front in Moscow on Nov. 18, 2014 Alexei Druzhinin—AP

Comment's come as NATO's secretary-general accuses Kremlin of "destabilizing" Ukraine

A top adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that the Kremlin wants “a 100% guarantee” that Ukraine will be prevented from joining NATO.

Dmitri Peskov told the BBC that NATO’s eastward expansion continued to make Russia “nervous.” His comments echoed similar tough talk coming from President Putin, who promised a crowd attending a forum in Moscow on Tuesday that Russia would never be subdued by Washington.

“Throughout history no one has ever managed to do so toward Russia — and no one ever will,” RT quoted Putin as saying.

Putin’s remarks came as NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg accused the Russian leadership of “destabilizing” Ukraine and breaking a two-month-old truce by continuing to support separatist forces fighting in the country’s southeast.

“We see the movement of troops, of equipment, of tanks, of artillery, of advance air-defense systems, and this is in violation of the cease-fire agreements,” said Stoltenberg, after arriving at the European Union headquarters in Brussels. “We call on Russia to pull back its forces from eastern Ukraine and to respect the Minsk Agreements.”

The alliance, along with independent monitors, has issued numerous reports during the past two weeks claiming that the Russian military is moving armored columns across the border into Ukraine, where rebel militias have been shelling strategic locations in the war-torn Donbass region on a daily basis.

In Moscow on Tuesday, Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned during a press conference that there was no end in sight to the conflict in Ukraine unless all parties to the Minsk accord stuck to the cease-fire.

“There are no grounds for optimism in the current situation,” Steinmeier told reporters, according to Agence France-Presse.

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel struck an even harsher tone — labeling Russia’s incursions into Ukraine as “dangerous and irresponsible.”

“The violations of sovereignty and international law that the Russians have perpetuated continue to require responses,” said Hagel, adding that the U.S. has begun working with NATO “in shifting our entire rotational rapid deployment focus.”

But as politicians verbally spar over Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the humanitarian disaster inside the country continues unabated. Last week, the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, warned that Europe was facing its largest displacement crisis in more than two decades as winter arrives.

“By October, UNHCR estimated that more than 800,000 people have been displaced, representing the largest displacement of people in Europe since the Balkan wars,” read a statement released by the U.N. “It is the latest refugee crisis in a year that has seen several, and is stretching resources thin.”

Read next: Putin’s Loss of German Trust Seals the West’s Isolation of Russia

TIME Ukraine

Russia Sends More Convoys Into Ukraine as Cease-Fire Collapses

Ukraine
A driver parks a truck of a Russian humanitarian-aid convoy at a warehouse in the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on Oct. 31, 2014 Dmitry Lovetsky—AP

NATO’s supreme commander says cease-fire now exists in “name only”

Russian officials announced on Wednesday plans to send a seventh convoy across the border into Ukraine’s war-torn Donbas region, amid widespread accusations that the Kremlin is sending arms to separatist forces instead of aid to civilians.

The announcement follows reports from the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) that 43 unmarked green military trucks were spotted heading toward the rebel stronghold of Donetsk on Tuesday.

“Five of the trucks were each towing 120mm howitzer artillery pieces. Another five were each towing partly-covered multi-launch rocket systems,” read a statement released by the OSCE.

Moscow has repeatedly denied giving military assistance to rebels and says its convoys are humanitarian.

Fighting between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists has intensified since rebels held elections in the enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk in early November. Experts say the two-month old cease-fire is now dead.

During a press conference in Naples on Tuesday, General Philip Breedlove, NATO supreme allied commander Europe, said the truce signed by Kiev, Moscow and separatist forces in Minsk last September was in tatters.

“The cease-fire is in name only at this point,” Breedlove told reporters on Tuesday, according to CNN. “The violence continues to increase day by day.”

The NATO commander’s candid admission followed acknowledgement from the White House earlier in the day that sanctions targeting Moscow, which continue to wreak havoc on the Russian economy, have failed to alter “Russia’s calculus” over Ukraine. “That’s why we continue to impose them,” Ben Rhodes, a White House Deputy National Security Adviser, told reporters in Beijing on Tuesday.

The U.N. estimates that at least 4,000 people have been killed since the pro-Russian rebellion first erupted in southeastern Ukraine seven months ago.

Read next: U.S. Says Russia Must Observe Truce as Hostilities Erupt Again in Ukraine

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