Russia holds war games near Ukraine; Merkel warns of catastrophe
MOSCOW: Russia launched new military exercises near its border with Ukraine on Thursday, showing no sign of backing down in its plans to annex its neighbor's Crimea region despite a stronger than expected drive for sanctions from the EU and United States.
In an unusually robust and emotionally worded speech, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned of "catastrophe" unless Russia changes course.
"We would not only see it, also as neighbors of Russia, as a threat. And it would not only change the European Union's relationship with Russia," she said in a speech in parliament. "No, this would also cause massive damage to Russia, economically and politically."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said a "serious series of steps" would be imposed on Monday by the United States and Europe if a referendum on Crimea joining Russia takes place on Sunday as planned.
Merkel, a fluent Russian speaker who grew up in Communist East Germany, has emerged in recent days as a leading figure in threatening tough measures against Moscow.
Her vice chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, a member of the normally Russia-friendly Social Democrats (SPD), also struck a tough tone, saying it was up to President Vladimir Putin to decide whether he wanted to return to the Cold War.
Putin declared Russia's right to invade its neighbor on March 1, even as Russian troops were already seizing control of Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula with a narrow ethnic Russian majority and a Russian naval base.
The pace of events has moved rapidly on the ground, perhaps signaling an effort by Moscow to turn the annexation into a fait accompli before the West could coordinate a response.
Pro-Moscow separatist politicians, who took power in the province after armed men seized its parliament on February 27, are planning to hold a referendum on union with Russia as soon as Sunday. Western countries say the vote is illegal.
Russia has taken territory from its former Soviet neighbors in the past with no serious consequences – most recently in 2008 when Putin invaded Georgia and seized full control over two breakaway regions with little international opposition. But if Putin was hoping for a similarly tepid response this time, he may have misjudged.
In particular, he seems to have alienated Merkel, the Western leader with whom Putin – a German speaker once based as a KGB spy in Merkel's native East Germany – has had the closest relationship in the past.
Merkel was initially more cautious than other Western leaders in responding to Russia's seizure of Crimea, but has emerged in recent days as among the toughest critics of the Kremlin, pushing the European Union to match U.S. sanctions.
The 28 member bloc has agreed on a framework to impose travel bans and asset freezes on Russian individuals and firms. It is expected to implement the measure and announce the target list as soon as Monday, the day after the Crimean referendum.
EU action is critical because Europe does 10 times as much trade with Russia as the United States, buying most of Moscow's gas and oil exports. Brussels had been widely seen as far less likely to act than Washington, both because of Europe's closer economic ties with Russia and because of the 28-member EU's laborious process of decision making and internal divisions.
The prospect that EU measures could be implemented as soon as Monday has weighed down the Russian economy.