KIEV – NATO warned on Wednesday that Russia’s military presence on the flash point border with Ukraine was of “grave concern” and that Moscow’s forces could reach military objectives in just days.
Ukraine’s new government meanwhile took the first step toward granting more powers to the country’s regions in line with Western wishes, but stopped well short of creating the federation sought by Russia.
The Western-backed government unveiled its high-stakes plan under the dual pressure of tens of thousands of Russian troops massed at its border and a veiled Kremlin threat to raise the price it charges its neighbor for crucial gas deliveries for the second time in a week.
In Brussels, General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top commander, told the Wall Street Journal that Russian troops could invade vast portions of Ukrainian territory in three to five days.
He said potential targets for Russia included a land corridor linking Crimea and mainland Russia, the taking of the strategic Odessa port, or an occupation of the breakaway Russian-speaking region of Transnistria in Moldova.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he shared that assessment and warned of a “very massive Russian military buildup along the Ukrainian border” which NATO estimates at about 40,000 troops.
“This is really a matter of grave concern,” Rasmussen said, at the close of a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels.
But the Ukrainian government — having won both vital financial backing from the IMF last week and moral support from NATO on Tuesday — appeared ready to resist the Kremlin’s diplomatic attempts to dislodge the more Russified regions in the east of the ex-Soviet country from direct Kiev rule.
The government said it would like to eliminate the current practice under which local governors are appointed by the president and move toward an election system.
But it said nothing about granting regions the right to set their own trade policies or establish special relations with foreign states.
“The main idea behind the concept is to decentralize power in the country and substantially broaden the authority of local communities,” the government said.
Moscow has sought radical constitutional reforms in Ukraine in the wake of the February overthrow of a pro-Kremlin regime whose rejection of closer ties with Europe sparked months of protests.
Russia would like to see Ukraine transformed into a federation that allows eastern regions in the vast nation of 46 million people to adopt Russian as a second state language and overrule some decisions coming from Kiev.
The Kremlin has argued the changes were needed because ethnic Russians had allegedly been coming under attack from ultranationalist forces that helped overthrow Kiev’s Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych in February.
But Washington and its European allies fear that Russia — having already annexed Crimea last month — is using the federation idea as an excuse to further splinter Ukraine by granting the Kremlin veto powers over Kiev’s regional policies.
U.S. officials have instead urged Ukraine’s new leaders to introduce more targeted reforms that undercut Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arguments for sending troops into southeastern Ukraine.
The military buildup on the European Union’s eastern border follows months of economic pressure that Russia poured on Ukraine in a seeming effort to force its leaders to reverse their firm pivot toward the West.
Russian state energy giant Gazprom — long accused of being wielded by the Kremlin as a weapon against uncooperative ex-Soviet and eastern European states — on Tuesday hiked the price it charges Ukraine for natural gas shipments by 44 percent.
The punitive but largely expected step eliminated a price discount that Putin had extended the old government in December in reward for its decision to reject closer EU ties.
But Ukraine now faces the possibility of its gas price jumping by another $100 — to a European record of $485.50 per 1,000 cubic meters — in a matter of days.
Moscow defends the further rate increase by arguing that the $100 rebate it awarded Kiev in 2010 — in return for extending the Kremlin’s lease to keep its Black Sea Fleet in Crimea — no longer applied because the peninsula was now part of Russia.
Putin signed an executive order unilaterally annulling the 2010 pact on Wednesday.
In a speech in Washington, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde warned that the crisis poses a danger to the broader world economy.
And in an interview with Russian television, deposed President Viktor Yanukovych said he did not approve of Crimea leaving Ukraine, but blamed the new authorities in Kiev for the region’s annexation by Russia.
“How can I as president of the country see the country falling apart?” he said from exile in southern Russia, adding he feared further crises in eastern and southern regions where Russian speakers are concentrated.