TIME Ukraine

Putin Boasts of Being Able to Take Kiev in 2 Weeks

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to speaks to the media after his talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk, Belarus, Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. Alexander Zemlianichenko—AP

The Kremlin doesn’t deny the stakes-raising comment but says it was taken out of context

Reports emerged Tuesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin said he could take control of Ukraine’s capital city in as little as two weeks, a remark that escalated already-pitched tensions between Russia and the West in the lead-up to NATO’s summit in Wales.

Putin made the incendiary comment in a phone conversation with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, according to Barroso’s account, published by Italy’s La Repubblica on Monday.

Barroso said he asked Putin if Russian troops had crossed into Eastern Ukraine, La Repubblica reports. “That is not the question,” Putin reportedly said. “But if I wanted to, I could take Kiev in two weeks.”

The Kremlin did not deny that Putin made the statement, but insisted it was 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,” Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said, Interfax reports. Ushakov blasted Barroso for making public the contents of what the aide said was intended to be a private conversation.

This latest sabre-rattling comes as NATO officials prepare for a summit at which the alliance is expected to discuss its role in shoring up defenses in Eastern Europe, a perennial irritant for the Kremlin made especially urgent amid ongoing clashes in eastern Ukraine.

[NYT]

TIME Ukraine

NATO Unveils Rapid-Response Force to Counter Russian Troops in Ukraine

Secretary-General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen gives a press on Sept. 1, 2014 in Brussels.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen gives a press on Sept. 1, 2014, in Brussels John Thys—AFP/Getty Images

The alliance plans to tackle “Russia’s aggressive behavior” with a new expeditionary force

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced Monday that the organization was planning to assemble a “spearhead” force that would be able to “travel light but strike hard if needed” in the face of Russia’s increasingly aggressive behavior in eastern Ukraine.

The new outfit would be manned by several thousand rotating allied troops who would be ready to respond by air or sea with the aid of special forces, explained Rasmussen.

“The Readiness Action Plan responds to Russia’s aggressive behavior,” he told reporters in Brussels. “It equips the alliance to respond to all security challenges, wherever they may arise.”

NATO representatives gathering for the Wales summit later this week are preparing a Readiness Action Plan to make the organization more agile.

Analysts said the announcement represents the strongest response yet from the military alliance since Russia began to forcefully intervene in Kiev’s affairs following the fall of the nation’s pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year.

“Actually, what has been announced seems to be quite significant in that NATO will start stationing troops quite close to Ukraine—not in the form of permanent bases but actually they will be rotating them in the form of temporary bases,” Clara Portela, assistant professor of political science at Singapore Management University and a sanctions specialist, told TIME.

“This is the first step that Western Europe has taken, in military terms, since the crisis started,” Portela said.

On Tuesday, Mikhail Popov, deputy head of the Russian Security Council, said the transatlantic alliance’s recent maneuvers demonstrate it remains among Moscow’s principal adversaries.

“I have no doubts that the issue of NATO military infrastructure encroaching on our borders, including through the expansion of the alliance, will remain among the biggest military threats to the Russian Federation,” Popov told Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

Popov’s remarks came as Ukrainian forces continued to engage in heavy firefights with pro-Kremlin insurgents, who NATO claims are being buttressed by Russian hardware and troops.

On Monday, the Ukrainian military reportedly withdrew from the international airport at the rebel stronghold of Luhansk after suffering heavy fire from a Russian tank battalion, according to Reuters.

The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the Ukrainian military is now assuming a much more defensive posture throughout the country’s southeast in order to beat back what Kiev fears is an all-out invasion of the country by the Russian military.

The tactical battlefield shift represents a sizable reversal in combat fortunes; Kiev looked poised to crush the separatist insurgency just weeks ago after forging large-scale inroads into rebel territory throughout the summer.

Ukraine’s Minister of Defense Valeriy Heletey described the conflict this week as the most serious military engagement in Europe since the Second World War, one that could cost tens of thousands of lives.

“A great war has arrived at our doorstep, the likes of which Europe has not seen since World War II,” he said in a Facebook post.

According to the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at least 4,445 people had been wounded and 1,830 people killed in eastern Ukraine as of Aug. 27.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) this week chided both government forces and insurgents for “contributing to rising civilian casualties” in and around Luhansk by unleashing artillery barrages that appear to be indiscriminate.

“Local residents are subjected to terrifying daily shelling, much of it apparently unlawful, and that the number of civilian casualties is steadily rising,” said Ole Solvang, senior emergencies researcher at HRW, in a statement.

TIME Ukraine

U.S. Warns Against Ukraine Travel

People walk past a building damaged by shelling in Snizhne (Snezhnoye), Donetsk region
People walk past a building damaged by shelling in Snizhne, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Aug. 29, 2014. Maxim Shemetov—Reuters

Escalating conflict in the region prompted the new travel advisory for Americans

The U.S. State Department warned Americans Friday to avoid traveling to eastern Ukraine, in response to the ongoing conflict between Ukraine’s armed forces and Russia-backed separatists.

“The situation in Ukraine is unpredictable and could change quickly,” the statement said. “U.S. citizens throughout Ukraine should avoid large crowds and be prepared to remain indoors and shelter in place for extended periods of time should clashes occur in their vicinity.”

The announcement identified the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have been plagued with violent outbreaks for months, as the key areas to avoid. U.S. citizens have been threatened and detained in the region, according to the release. It also advised Americans to “defer all travel to the Crimean Peninsula.”

The U.S. announcement comes as the conflict in Ukraine continues to escalate with each passing day. Up to 1,ooo Russian troops appeared to enter Ukraine on Friday, and the Ukrainian government responded by instituting a mandatory conscription.

TIME Ukraine

Ukraine Brings Back Conscription as Russia Appears to Launch All-Out Invasion

Servicemen sit atop an armoured vehicle as they travel through the steppe near the village of Krasnodarovka in Rostov region
Servicemen sit atop an armored vehicle as they travel near the village of Krasnodarovka in Rostov region, Russia, on Aug. 28, 2014 Reuters

Moscow slammed at emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s national security council has ordered the reinstatement of mandatory conscription in response to what seems to be a full-scale Russian invasion of the country. The draft, affecting able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 25, is the latest indication that the Ukrainian conflict is rapidly intensifying.

Previous attempts at mandatory conscription have led to protests. But during a meeting with the council Thursday, Poroshenko urged his countrymen to “keep a cold mind” as Ukrainians geared up for a broader conflict.

NATO has provided satellite images that appear to show Russian armored vehicles fighting in Ukrainian territory, CNN reports. British intelligence says it has similar evidence, while U.S. officials say there are now up to 1,000 Russian troops in Ukraine.

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to taunt Kiev by calling on separatist forces to open a humanitarian corridor in southeast Ukraine so that demoralized Ukrainian troops could flee home to their “mothers, wives and children.” He also claimed that “a large number” of Ukrainian troops were not “in the military operation of their own volition” but were simply “following orders.”

Vox reported that in his statement Putin referred to Ukraine’s embattled Donbass region by the politically loaded term Novorossiya, literally “New Russia.” Novorossiya is the old czarist name for the parts of Russia and Ukraine around the Black Sea and is a designation favored by separatists wishing to confer a historical integrity on the areas for which they are fighting.

“A counterfactual equivalent might be if a disturbingly post-Gestapo government in Germany began referring to the Netherlands as Western Germany or to western parts of the Czech Republic as Sudetenland,” John Besemeres, professor and adjunct fellow at the Australian National University’s Center for European Studies, tells TIME.

Responding to the incursions, Western envoys lambasted Russia on Thursday at an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council in New York City. The U.S. representative, Samantha Power, said “Russia has come before this council to say everything except the truth. It has manipulated. It has obfuscated. It has outright lied. So we have learned to measure Russia by its actions and not by its words.”

The British envoy Mark Lyall Grant described Moscow’s incursions as a “brazen” violation of the U.N. Charter and international law.

Moscow’s U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin admitted there were Russians fighting in the Ukraine but claimed they were volunteers. He then went on to raise questions about the presence of U.S. military advisers in the country.

“A message must be sent to Washington — stop interfering in the internal activities of sovereign states and restrain your geopolitical ambition,” Churkin said, according to a U.N. statement.

Earlier on Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed alarm about the escalating conflict and urged Moscow and Kiev to follow up on talks held in Minsk earlier this week to forge “a peaceful way out of the conflict.”

Reports have meanwhile surfaced that separatist forces have succeeded in opening a third front after seizing the port city of Novoazovsk on the Sea of Azov in the wake of days of shelling. Analysts continue to speculate whether the move is designed to draw troops away from heavy fighting near the separatist strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, or is part of a strategic maneuver to forge a corridor to the Russian-controlled Crimean Peninsula farther west.

TIME Ukraine

Washington and Kiev Say Moscow Is Sending Heavily Armed Troops Into Ukraine

A group of Russian servicemen, who are detained by Ukrainian authorities, attend a news conference in Kiev
A group of Russian servicemen, taken prisoner by Ukrainian authorities, are presented at a news conference in Kiev on Aug. 27, 2014. Ukraine said on Tuesday its forces had captured a group of Russian paratroopers who had crossed into Ukrainian territory on a "special mission," but Moscow said they had ended up there by mistake Valentyn Ogirenko—Reuters

Putin shrugs and says the war is none of his business but a "domestic matter" for Kiev

Ukrainian and U.S. officials accused Moscow of sending heavily armed columns across the border into Ukraine on Wednesday — a move that Washington says is likely part of a “Russian-directed counteroffensive” against Kiev.

During a press conference in Washington on Wednesday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said reports indicated that “additional columns of Russian tanks, multiple rocket launchers, and armored vehicles” entered southeastern Ukraine this week, sharply escalating the five-month-old conflict.

“These incursions indicate a Russian-directed counteroffensive is likely under way in Donetsk and Luhansk. Clearly, that is of deep concern to us,” Psaki told reporters.

In Kiev, military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told the New York Times that an armored Russian column entered the town of Amvrosiyivka on Wednesday in what was likely an attempt to expand the current multipronged counteroffensive against Ukrainian troops.

Separatist forces have long claimed that they use weaponry captured from Ukrainian arsenals. However, American officials argue that the hardware in rebel hands includes highly sophisticated air-defense systems — equipment that the Ukrainian armed forces are not believed to posses, according to the Times.

Ukraine went on to accuse the Kremlin of directing troops toward the coastal city of Mariupol, in what appears to be a bid to draw Ukrainian forces away from the heavy fighting near the rebel strongholds in Luhansk and Donetsk.

The escalation of the conflict comes only hours after an inconclusive round of talks wrapped up between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Belarus on Tuesday night.

Following the meeting, Putin described the increasingly violent war in Ukraine as a purely domestic affair.

“Frankly speaking, we cannot discuss any conditions for a ceasefire or possible agreements between Kiev, Donetsk and Luhansk,” Putin told reporters, according to a transcript published by his office. “This is not our business; it is a domestic matter of Ukraine.”

Putin’s remarks came less than 24 hours after Ukrainian authorities said they captured at least nine Russian paratroopers inside the country earlier this week.

Russian officials later went on to explain that the presence of members of an elite Russian airborne division in Ukraine was likely the result of an accidental incursion that occurred during a patrol.

Putin brushed off the incident — explaining that such incursions aren’t really that big a deal.

“After all, Ukrainian service members entered our territory with armored equipment,” said Putin. “And we didn’t have any problems.”

The U.N. estimates that more than 2,000 people have been killed since the pro-Russia uprising kicked off in April. The fighting has also displaced close to 400,000.

TIME Ukraine

Rice Slams Moscow’s Intervention in Ukraine as ‘Dangerous and Inflammatory’

Susan Rice
National Security Adviser Susan Rice listens to reporters questions during a briefing on March 21, 2014 Manuel Balce Ceneta —AP

The National Security Adviser's condemnation comes ahead of a meeting between Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin

U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice has berated Russia for continuing to pump heavy weaponry and military personnel into Ukraine’s eastern provinces, where a pro-Moscow insurgency has been taking place since April.

“Repeated Russian incursions into Ukraine unacceptable. Dangerous and inflammatory,” said Rice on her Twitter account. “Russia has no right to send vehicles or cargo into Ukraine without Govt of Ukraine’s permission,” she said in a separate tweet.

She added that the Kremlin’s incursions into Ukraine represented a “significant escalation” of the crisis.

Rice’s strong words came hours ahead of a scheduled round of talks between Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Belarus on Tuesday. They also followed confirmation from NATO commanders last week that artillery units, manned by Russian troops, were operating both outside and within Ukraine and were bombarding Ukrainian forces.

Relations between Kiev and Moscow have been in a precipitous downward spiral since the ousting of Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych by mass demonstrations earlier this year. That was followed in March by the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula — a move that inspired a pro-Russian rebellion in eastern Ukraine the following month.

Under the leadership of Poroshenko, Ukraine has incrementally beaten back the insurgency, despite the aid that the rebels are receiving.

“What we’ve seen in recent weeks is a steady advance by the Ukrainian forces and Russia trying to pull various expedients out of the hat to help their proxies over the border,” John Besemeres, professor and adjunct fellow at Australian National University’s Center for European Studies, tells TIME. “So far, at least, it doesn’t appear that any of these are working.”

On Monday, Kiev claimed to have captured a number of Russian paratroopers inside its borders.

The news came as President Poroshenko dissolved the country’s parliament and called for a new round of elections in October.

“Many deputies who are in the [Parliament] are direct sponsors or accomplices, that is to say allies of the militant separatists,” said Poroshenko, according to the Associated Press.

Approximately 2,249 people have been killed and more than 6,000 injured in Ukraine since hostilities erupted, according to an assessment by the U.N.

Despite the heavy losses, which include more than 700 Ukrainian servicemen, Poroshenko appears to be committed to eradicating the insurgents.

“We will manage to defend the independence, life and security of everyone, our right to live freely on our Ukrainian land at the cost of colossal efforts of the entire nation,” the President told the country during a national address on Aug. 24, the country’s Independence Day.

TIME Ukraine

Civil War Hangs Heavy Over Ukraine During Its Independence Day Celebrations

Ukrainian forces parade during a military ceremony marking the 23rd anniversary of Ukraine's independence in Kiev on Aug. 24, 2014.
Ukrainian forces parade during a military ceremony marking the 23rd anniversary of Ukraine's independence in Kiev on Aug. 24, 2014. Sergei Supinsky—AFP/Getty Images

Marches in Kiev take place amid new reports of Russian hardware finding its way into rebel hands

The increasingly bloody war carving up Ukraine was in the thoughts of many Sunday as the embattled nation observed a somber Independence Day.

In Kiev, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko gave an impassioned address, praising the “warriors” fighting against foreign aggression.

“Never in 23 years has this day been so majestic as today. People have never celebrated it as sincerely as today,” said Poroshenko, as honor guards and battle-primed infantry, preparing to deploy to the front, stood ramrod straight.

“Ukraine will never again celebrate this holiday under [the] military-historical calendar of the neighboring country. We will honor defenders of our motherland, not someone else’s!” roared Poroshenko.

Following the speech, a military band led a column of troops, missile launchers and armor through Kiev’s Maidan Square in a pointed message to Moscow, days ahead of a meeting between Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Further east, in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, an entirely different scene played out, as pro-Russian separatists marched captured Ukrainian soldiers at gunpoint through the streets of Donetsk city.

Pedestrians responded to sight of the haggard prisoners of war with cries of “fascists” and some threw bottles at the POWs, according to Reuters.

“This is no independence day. This is a plague on our land, the fascists who have taken control of Kiev who are now shooting at hospitals and morgues,” one Donestk resident told the news agency.

Ukraine has been locked in bitter civil war for months in the wake of a pro-Moscow uprising in the country’s far east, following the Russian military’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula in March.

Kiev and Washington have accused the Putin Administration of providing arms and supplies to the separatists, including a sophisticated surface-to-air missile system that could have downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 17 in July with the loss of 298 lives.

On Friday, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes confirmed to reporters that forces within Russia were firing artillery into Ukraine and moving heavy weaponry across the border into rebel hands.

TIME russia

Putin’s Popularity Soars to 87% in the Face of Adversity

Vladimir Putin
President Vladimir Putin speaks at the opening ceremony of the monument to the Heroes of the World War I in Moscow on Friday, Aug. 1, 2014. Yuri Kochetkov—AP

A new survey claims Russians are more than happy with their controversial strongman at the helm

Russian President Vladimir Putin has enmeshed his nation in civil war in Ukraine, faces international sanctions for allegedly contributing to the downing of a commercial airliner last month, and has been targeted by a fresh round of financial sanctions from the West. But Russia loves him all the same.

In fact, his popularity among his fellow countrymen appears to grow with each new controversy.

A new poll released this week by the Levada Center reports that the Russian President currently enjoys an approval rating of 87% — a 4-point jump since a similar survey was completed in May, according to the Moscow Times.

Meanwhile in the U.S., where the economy is bouncing back and the White House has largely retreated from militaristic interventions abroad, President Barack Obama’s approval rating sagged to 40% this week — its lowest point to date.

TIME russia

WATCH: Bird Launches Airstrike on Putin’s Shoulder (UPDATED)

No word on whether the bird was from Ukraine

Correction appended

A video shared online made it seem as if Vladimir Putin got some unwelcome love from a feathered friend Sunday during a speech unveiling a monument to Russians who served in World War I.

Putin was speaking about the sacrifice made by Russian soldiers in World War I, linking the Great War to his own current political troubles. “This tragedy reminds us what happens when aggression, selfishness and the unbridled ambitions of national leaders and political establishments push common sense aside, so that instead of preserving the world’s most prosperous continent, Europe, they lead it towards danger,” he said. “It is worth remembering this today.”

Correction: Reporting by The Independent reveals this video to have been falsely doctored to show a bird defecating on Putin.

TIME

Obama: ‘We Tortured Some Folks’

US President Barack Obama makes a statement while at the White House in Washington
President Barack Obama makes a statement while at the White House in Washington on Aug. 1, 2014. Larry Downing—Reuters

On Friday, the President offered his frankest admission of post-9/11 interrogation tactics, condemned Hamas for breaking the cease-fire and criticized House Republicans

On Friday, President Barack Obama previewed the upcoming release of a Senate report into the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation after the attacks of September 11, 2001, saying “we tortured some folks.”

Speaking to reporters from the White House, he said, “Even before I came into office, I was very clear that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we did some things that were wrong,” Obama said. “We crossed a line and that needs to be understood and accepted. We have to as a country take responsibility for that.”

At the briefing, Obama also condemned Hamas for breaching a cease-fire with Israel minutes after it went into effect Friday morning, saying the breach makes it more difficult to end the weeks-long conflict in Gaza. he said Hamas must immediately release captured Israeli solider Hadar Goldin, who was taken on the Israel-Gaza border in a Friday morning attack that killed two other Israeli soldiers. “If they are serious about resolving this situation, that soldier needs to be released unconditionally as soon as possible,” Obama said. He added that with the trust broken, “I think it’s going to be very hard to put a cease-fire back together again.”

“The Israelis are entirely right that these tunnel networks need to be dismantled,” Obama said, adding that Israelis should be pursuing ways to do so with fewer civilian casualties.

The president also defended CIA Director John Brennan, who has been caught up in controversy amid revelations that CIA staffers improperly accessed the files of the Senate investigators. “I have full confidence in John Brennan,” Obama said.

Obama also heaped praise on Secretary of State John Kerry for his efforts in negotiating the cease-fire, saying he had been the subject of “unfair criticism” in recent weeks. He also said Israel must do more to reduce civilian casualties in Gaza. “It’s hard to reconcile Israel’s need to defend itself with our concern for civilians in Gaza,” he said.

Obama also defended his handling of the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine, saying the United States has done everything to support the Ukrainian government. “Short of going to war, there are going to be some constraints in terms of what we can do,” he said. Obama said that Russian President Vladimir Putin should want to resolve the situation diplomatically, “but sometimes people don’t always act rationally.”

Before taking questions from reporters, Obama highlighted Friday’s jobs report showing the sixth-consecutive month of 200,000+ job growth and blasted congressional inaction on ambassadorial appointments and dealing with the crisis of unaccompanied minors crossing the southwest border.

“House Republicans as we speak are trying to pass the most extreme and unworkable versions of a bill that they know is going nowhere,” Obama said.

Obama said he would act to shift money around to pay for the care of the unaccompanied minors in U.S. custody because Congress left him no other option.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker of the House John Boehner said Obama has been AWOL on the border crisis. ““When it comes to the humanitarian crisis on our southern border, President Obama has been completely AWOL – in fact, he has made matter worse by flip-flopping on the 2008 law that fueled the crisis. Senate Democrats have left town without acting on his request for a border supplemental. Right now, House Republicans are the only ones still working to address this crisis.”

–with reporting by Justin Worland

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