As fighting intensifies in Eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed rebels are attempting to carve out an autonomous section of the country, Vladimir Putin said Ukrainian troops in the region are serving as a “NATO legion” – with the goal of containing Russia.
“In essence, this is already not an army, but a foreign legion, in this case NATO’s foreign legion that certainly does not pursue the goal of defending Ukraine’s national interests,” the Russian president said, according to the official government news service ITAR-TASS. “It has quite different goals — geopolitical containing of Russia, which is absolutely inconsistent with the national interests of the Ukrainian people.”
Rebels in Ukraine have taken Putin’s idea even further, alleging that dead soldiers in “NATO uniforms” were found in the airport in Donetsk, the scene of heavy fighting in recent days.
Putin claimed that the effort to displace rebels who have taken over part of Ukraine “does not pursue the goal of defending Ukraine’s national interests,” TASS reported. It’s a claim that many would dispute as incoherent on its face.
Ukraine is not a member of NATO, though it does have an ambassador to the alliance, Igor Dolgov. On Monday, Dolgov announced Ukraine would be seeking additional non-lethal aid from the alliance, which has supported the Ukrainian army with financing and equipment other than weaponry.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a press conference on Monday, “The statement that there is a NATO legion in Ukraine is nonsense. There is no NATO legion. The foreign forces in Ukraine are Russian. So I think that is in a way the problem. That there are Russian forces in Ukraine.”
The situation in Ukraine has deteriorated rapidly in recent days. In addition to stepped-up fighting in the area around Donetsk, a civilian area of the port city of Mariupol was subject to a rocket attack over the weekend, which came from the area controlled by rebels, international observers determined.
In response to that attack, the international community condemned the rebels and the Russian support of their efforts. President Obama and his counterparts in Europe said that they would now begin to consider strengthening an already-punishing regime of sanctions on the Russian economy.
The markets responded Monday to the potential of more sanctions by driving the value of the Russian ruble even lower. The troubled ruble has lost nearly half its value in the last several months, and in combination with high inflation and reduced income due to low oil process has helped push the Russian economy into what is expected to be a severe recession.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, on Monday called the threat of increased sanctions “economic blackmail” that would not be effective, according to TASS. “Russia never agreed with threats like that and moreover, these threats and blackmail have never led and will never lead to Russia changing its consistent and well-known position under pressure.”
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