Belarus announces military drills with Russia near Ukraine border

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Belarus on Monday announced joint military drills with close ally Russia on its southern border with Ukraine and accused the NATO military alliance of building up offensive capabilities near its borders.

U.S., NATO and Ukrainian officials say Russia has built up forces near Ukraine, sparking fears of a looming attack. Moscow denies any such plan. Belarus is itself locked in a row with the European Union over migrants camped at its western border.

Casting it as a response to new military deployments in countries to the west and south of Belarus, Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin said Minsk would hold an exercise with Russia in the “medium term.” He gave no specific date.

“We see troop formations around our state borders… We can only be concerned by the militarization of our neighboring countries, which is why are forced to plan measures in response,” he said in comments on his ministry’s website.

NATO member Lithuania, which lies to the west of Belarus, said on Sunday the Atlantic alliance needed to adjust its stance towards Belarus, whose military, it said, was becoming more integrated with Russia’s armed forces.

On Monday, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said Minsk would not sit idly on the sidelines if the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine erupted or a war broke out with the West at Russia’s borders.

“…it is clear whose side Belarus will be on,” he said in a clear nod to Russia, whose financial and political backing helped him weather huge protests against his rule that broke out last autumn.

“They understand this, that’s why they’ve begun strengthening their northern Belarus-Ukraine border,” Lukashenko was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.

The comments appeared to contrast with the more neutral stance taken by Lukashenko after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its backing for separatist forces in Ukraine’s east.

Minsk, like most of the world, still recognizes Crimea as Ukrainian territory.

(Reporting by Maxim Rodionov; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Putin says Russia could have sunk UK warship without starting World War Three

By Andrew Osborn and Vladimir Soldatkin

MOSCOW (Reuters) -President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Russia could have sunk a British warship that it accused of illegally entering its territorial waters without starting World War Three and accused Washington of a role in the “provocation.”

Tensions between Moscow and London soared last week after Russia challenged the right of HMS Defender to transit waters near Russian-annexed Crimea, something Britain said it had every right to do.

Putin’s comments add menace to earlier Russian warnings that Moscow would bomb British naval vessels in the Black Sea in the event of further provocative actions by the British navy near heavily fortified Crimea.

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and Britain and most of the world recognize the Black Sea peninsula as part of Ukraine, not Russia.

In an account of last week’s incident which London said it did not recognize, Russia said it had fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of the British warship which was en route from Ukraine to Georgia.

Putin, speaking during his annual question and answer session with voters, signaled his anger over what he called “a provocation” designed to reveal how Russian forces in Crimea reacted to such intrusions.

When asked if the world had stood on the precipice of World War Three during the standoff, Putin said: “Of course not.”

“Even if we had sunk the ship it is hard to imagine that the world would have been on the verge of World War Three because those doing it (the provocation) know that they could not emerge as victors from such a war,” he added.

Putin accused the United States and Britain of planning the episode together, saying a U.S. spy plane had taken off from Greece earlier on the same day to watch how Russia would respond to the British warship.

“It was obvious that the destroyer entered (the waters near Crimea) pursuing, first of all, military goals, trying to use the spy plane to see how our forces would stop such provocations, to see what is activated and where, how things work and where everything is located.”

Putin said Russia had realized what the aim of the exercise was and had responded in a way that would only give the other side the information Moscow deemed necessary.

Putin said he saw a political element to the incident, which took place shortly after he had met U.S. President Joe Biden in Geneva.

“The meeting in Geneva had just happened, so why was this provocation needed, what was its goal? To underscore that those people (the Americans and British) do not respect Crimeans’ choice to join the Russian Federation,” he said.

The Russian leader accused London and Washington of a lack of gratitude, saying he had earlier this year given the order for Russian forces to pull back from near Ukraine’s borders after their build-up had generated concern in the West.

“We did this,” said Putin. “But instead of reacting positively to this and saying ‘OK, we’ve understood your response to our grumbling’ – instead of that, what did they do? They barged across our borders.”

(Additional reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Alex Richardson and Catherine Evans)

Russia warns UK and U.S. not to tempt fate in Black Sea

By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russia warned Britain and the United States on Friday against “tempting fate” by sending warships to the Black Sea, and said it would defend its borders using all possible means including military force.

In a statement broadcast on state television, the Defense Ministry said it was ill-advised for British and U.S. vessels to approach the coast of Crimea, a peninsula Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

“We call on the Pentagon and the British navy, which are sending their warships into the Black Sea, not to tempt fate in vain,” Major General Igor Konashenkov, the ministry’s spokesperson, said.

HMS Defender, a British destroyer that sailed through waters off Crimea on Wednesday, was “not more than a target” for the Black Sea fleet’s defenses, he said.

Russia considers Crimea part of its territory, but the peninsula is internationally recognized as part of Ukraine.

Russia said on Wednesday it had fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of a British warship to chase it out of Black Sea waters off the coast of Crimea.

Britain rejected Russia’s account of the incident. It said it believed any shots fired were a pre-announced Russian “gunnery exercise”, and that no bombs had been dropped.

It confirmed HMS Defender had sailed through what it said were waters belonging to Ukraine.

The British embassy in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgian the South Caucasus, wrote on Twitter on Friday that HMS Defender was set to arrive in the port city of Batumi on the eastern coast of the Black Sea.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said separately that Washington and London were sowing strife by failing to accept Crimea was part of Russia, and that Russia was ready to defend its borders using all means, including military force.

Moscow warned Britain on Thursday that it would bomb British naval vessels in the Black Sea if what it called provocative actions by the British navy were repeated off the Crimean coast.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said separately on Friday that it was beginning joint navy and air force exercises in the eastern Mediterranean, where Moscow operates an air base on Syria’s coast.

(Reporting by Anton Kolodyazhnyy, Alexander Marrow and Vladimir Soldatkin; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Editing by Katya Golubkova, Timothy Heritage, William Maclean)

Russia says it chases British destroyer out of Crimea waters with warning shots, bombs

By Maria Kiselyova and Andrew MacAskill

MOSCOW/LONDON (Reuters) -Russia said on Wednesday it had fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of a British warship to chase it out of waters Moscow claims in the Black Sea off the coast of the Crimea peninsula.

Britain rejected Russia’s account of the incident, saying it believed any shots fired were a pre-announced Russian “gunnery exercise,” and that no bombs had been dropped. But it confirmed that its destroyer, HMS Defender, had sailed through what it described as waters belonging to Ukraine.

The ship was “conducting an innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law,” Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in a statement.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said: “It’s incorrect to say either that it was fired upon or that the ship was in Russian waters.”

Military experts said that whether or not the details of the Russian or British accounts were accurate, the incident appeared to represent an escalation in confrontation between the West and Russia over disputed sea lanes.

Russia’s foreign ministry called the passage of the British warship through the area an act of “blatant provocation” and said it would summon the British ambassador over the incident.

Russia seized and annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and considers areas around the peninsula’s coast to be Russian waters. Western countries deem the Crimea part of Ukraine and reject Russia’s claim to the seas around it.

“Innocent passage” is an internationally recognized right for ships to sail through territorial waters of a country provided they mean no harm.

“This was done to test Russian resolve over Crimea,” Mark Gray, a maritime security specialist and a retired colonel with Britain’s Royal Marines, told Reuters.

“Russia is trying to create facts on the ground and get them respected internationally, so that their annexation is in effect rubber-stamped by the world,” he said, comparing Moscow’s Black Sea claims to those of Beijing in the South China Sea, also rejected by the West.

“Nonetheless, the Russian response is extraordinarily robust, a tad undiplomatic and way over the top.”

SEA BREEZE

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the incident showed that Russia’s “aggressive and provocative policies” in the Black Sea and nearby Azov Sea constituted a “continuous threat to Ukraine and its allies.” In a tweet, Kuleba called for more cooperation between NATO and Ukraine in the Black Sea.

Western countries are conducting naval exercises this week in the Black Sea known as Sea Breeze. Hours before the incident, Russia’s embassy in Washington had called on the United States and allies to cancel them.

The British destroyer visited the Ukrainian port of Odessa this week, where an agreement was signed for Britain to help upgrade Ukraine’s navy.

Russia’s defense ministry, quoted by Interfax news agency, said the British destroyer had left Russian waters soon after Russia fired the warning shots. A Russian bomber dropped four high explosive fragmentation bombs in its path, it said.

The Russian ministry said the British ship had ventured as far as 3 kilometers (2 miles) into Russian waters near Cape Fiolent, a landmark on Crimea’s southern coast near the port of Sevastopol, headquarters of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea fleet.

“The destroyer had been warned that weapons would be used if it trespasses the border of the Russian Federation. It did not react to the warning,” the ministry said.

(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov, Pavel Polityuk, Andrew MacAskill, William James and Jonathan SaulWriting by Olzhas Auyezov and Peter GraffEditing by Mark Heinrich and Gareth Jones)

Russian-annexed Crimea declares state of emergency over floods

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Authorities in Russian annexed Crimea declared a local state of emergency on Thursday after heavy rain caused flooding in parts of the peninsula’s east including the city of Kerch.

The flooding affected nearly 300 homes and a city hospital, the emergencies ministry said.

Whole streets were submerged in water in parts of the city. In one place a fire engine could be seen driving through deep water towards a submerged passenger bus in a video posted online. Some cars were almost completely under water.

“In terms of material damage, the situation is severe. But now commissions have been set up, a regional emergency has already been declared,” Sergei Aksyonov, head of the Russian authorities, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying.

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Kyiv wants the peninsula back.

Aksyonov was shown on a boat in Kerch, surveying the flooding in video circulated by the RIA news agency.

(Reporting by Maxim Rodionov and Elena Ostrovskaya; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Barbara Lewis)

Russian military build-up near Ukraine numbers more than 150,000 troops, EU’s Borrell says

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Russia has concentrated more than 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s border and in annexed Crimea, the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said on Monday after EU foreign ministers were briefed by Ukraine’s foreign minister.

“It is more than 150,000 Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian borders and in Crimea. The risk of further escalation is evident,” Borrell said, declining to give a source for the figure.

He said no new economic sanctions or expulsions of Russian diplomats were planned for the time being, despite saying that the military build-up on Ukraine’s borders was the largest ever.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, after addressing EU foreign ministers, called on the EU to impose new sanctions on Russia.

Tensions between Moscow and Kyiv have been rising amid the military build-up and clashes in eastern Ukraine between the army and pro-Russian separatists.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott and Sabine Siebold)

Russia extends detention of jailed Ukrainian sailors: agencies

Detained crew members of Ukrainian naval ships, which were seized by Russia's FSB security service in November 2018, stand inside a defendants' cage as they attend a court hearing in Moscow, Russia January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A court in Moscow on Tuesday ordered eight Ukrainian sailors seized by Russia last year off the coast of Crimea to be kept in pre-trial detention until April 24, Russian news agencies reported.

Russia seized 24 men and three Ukrainian navy vessels on Nov. 25 near Russian-annexed Crimea. Moscow accuses them of illegally entering Russian waters, something Kiev denies.

The court hearings were closed to the public, but the Ukrainians were shown on state television in the custody of armed security officers in masks.

It was not immediately clear if any others among the 24 would appear in court.

The United States and European Union have called on Russia to release the men, but the Kremlin has said they must be put on trial.

No date has been set for a trial.

Moscow could hand over the men as part of a prisoner swap deal with Ukraine later this year, a Russian diplomatic source was quoted as saying last week by the pro-Kremlin Izvestia newspaper.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Andrey Ostroukh, Editing by William Maclean)

No Trump-Putin meeting while Russia holds Ukraine ships: Bolton

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the meeting to discuss preparation to mark the anniversary of the allied victory in the World War II at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia December 12, 2018. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – There will be no meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin while Russia still holds Ukrainian ships and sailors seized near Crimea, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said on Thursday.

“I don’t see circumstances in the foreseeable future where such a meeting could take place until the ships and the crews are released,” Bolton told reporters at a Washington think tank.

Russia seized three Ukrainian navy vessels and their combined crew of 24 last month off the coast of Russian-annexed Crimea and accused them of illegally entering Russian waters.

Ukraine has said Russia captured the two small gunboats and one tugboat illegally and accused Moscow of military aggression.

Two Ukrainian navy captains being held in a Russian jail have refused to provide testimony because they consider themselves prisoners of war, their lawyers said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Russia ready to discuss fate of detained Ukrainian sailors after their trial

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrives for a news conference on the sidelines of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Milan, Italy, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo

MILAN (Reuters) – Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday that Moscow would only be ready to discuss the fate of a group of Ukrainian sailors it captured last month after their trial was finished.

The United States and the European Union have called on Russia to free the 24 Ukrainian sailors who were detained by Russia on Nov. 25 near Russian-annexed Crimea. Moscow accuses them of illegally entering Russian waters, something Kiev denies.

Lavrov, speaking at a news conference in Milan, said Russia would only be willing to discuss the sailors’ fate and the possibility of coming to some kind of agreement with Ukraine about them once their trial in Crimea was over.

No date for their trial has yet been set.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Tom Balmforth)

Ukraine resumes grain shipments from Azov Sea

FILE PHOTO: Cranes are seen in the Azov Sea port of Mariupol, Ukraine December 2, 2018. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich/File Photo

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine said on Tuesday it had resumed grain shipments from the Azov Sea, blocked for around 10 days after a military standoff with Russia in the Kerch Strait off Crimea.

Russia seized three Ukrainian naval ships and their crews on Nov. 25 after opening fire on them, accusing them of illegally entering its territorial waters.

Ukraine denied its ships had done anything wrong and accused Russia of military aggression. Its president, Petro Poroshenko, imposed martial law on Nov. 26 in parts of the country deemed most vulnerable to Russian attack.

“The passage of vessels with agricultural products through ports in the Azov Sea has been unlocked,” Ukraine’s agriculture ministry said on Tuesday in a statement.

“The loading of grain to vessels through the ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk is restored and carried out in regular mode,” it said.

Earlier, Ukraine’s infrastructure minister Volodymyr Omelyan had said the two ports – vital for eastern Ukraine’s economy – had been “partially unlocked” with the restoration of some free movement through the Kerch Strait.

Germany welcomed the news but also repeated its call for Russia to release the 24 Ukrainian sailors who are facing charges of illegally entering Russian waters.

“We will try to ensure that this conflict does not result in a serious crisis,” Foreign Heiko Maas told reporters in Brussels after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers also attended by officials from Ukraine and Georgia.

Germany wants to de-escalate the situation and work toward a political solution, he said, adding there would be further discussions on the issue this week but gave no details.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed the Azov Sea standoff with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Argentina.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kiev and Andrea Shalal in Berlin; Editing by Gareth Jones)