Russian forces back off Ukraine border as fighting rages


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Russia has pulled back most of its troops from the border with Ukraine, according to a U.S. defense official, as government forces continued a campaign to wipe out separatist rebels in the former Soviet Republic’s east.
A “majority of the Russian forces” have been withdrawn from the Ukrainian border, Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters traveling to Singapore with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. About seven battalions of Russian troops, or “several thousands,” remain, he said. Russia’s withdrawal may be marred by a gas dispute. Talks with Ukraine in Berlin today won’t advance, Ukrainian First Deputy Energy Minister Yuri Zyukov said yesterday.
Russia is unfortunately now an “enemy,” Zyukov said in the Ukrainian capital. It “speaks in ultimatums,” he said, and the only solution to the natural gas standoff is likely to be arbitration.
Confirmation of Russia’s partial withdrawal emerged hours after separatist rebels downed a military helicopter in eastern Ukraine, killing a general and 13 troops. Ukrainian forces used aviation and artillery assets to “destroy” the rebel unit blamed in the attack, the Interior Ministry’s National Guard unit said in a statement.
‘National catastrophe’
Insurgents killed one Ukrainian soldier and wounded two in an attack on a military vehicle near the city of Izyum, in the eastern Kharkiv region, the National Guard said on its website today.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe lost contact with a team of four monitors in the Luhansk region after it was stopped by armed men yesterday, the OSCE said in e-mailed statement. Another OSCE team was abducted on May 26.
The fighting since yesterday produced a new round of finger-pointing between the U.S. and Russia. The downing of the helicopter prompted a spokesman for U.S. President Barack Obama to blame “outside” assistance in providing weapons.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Mykhaylo Koval said today progress has been made clearing some areas of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions of rebels. Russia demanded that Ukraine halt its “fratricidal war” and withdraw troops from the mainly Russian-speaking area after separatists suffered the heaviest casualties in the fighting.
Gas issues
The U.S. and other countries should use their influence to stop Ukraine from “sliding into a national catastrophe,” the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on its website. The fighting had renewed questions about Russia’s pledge to pull back its troops from Ukraine’s borders.
The Russian RBC news service reported that the troop withdrawal had been halted, and that a significant amount of equipment remains near the border. The service cited an unidentified person in the army’s General Staff.
Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, didn’t comment immediately on the RBC report by phone today.
Earlier yesterday, the press service of Ukraine’s border guards said Russia had reduced the number of soldiers stationed on its border with Ukraine to about 20,000 from about 50,000. The Russian troops were leaving behind military assets, suggesting they may return, the service said, without being more specific.
Russia and Ukraine remained at loggerheads over payments for natural gas as a compromise proposal from the European Union to try to prevent a disruption in fuel supply to the continent as soon as next week failed to elicit support.
‘Outside’ assistance
The battle over billions of dollars of payments for Russian gas from its former Soviet ally threatens deliveries of the fuel bound for the EU, about half of which transits through Ukraine. Similar rows over prices and debt between the two sides held up European supplies during freezing weather in 2006 and 2009.
Under the EU plan announced May 26 after earlier trilateral talks, Ukraine was to pay $2 billion of its gas debt by May 30 and $500 million more by June 7. If OAO Gazprom (GAZP) gets the first tranche, Russia’s gas exporter would then maintain deliveries without demanding payment in advance and begin talks on prices.
Insurgents used a shoulder-fired missile to shoot down an Mi-8 transport chopper amid heavy fighting in Slovyansk, 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the Russian border, Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said yesterday.
‘Russia’s goal’
“We are concerned that this indicates separatists continue to have access to advanced weaponry and other assistance from the outside,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, raised concerns about foreign fighters crossing the border from Russia, particularly reports of the involvement of Chechens, according to the State Department. Kerry pressed Lavrov to “end all support for separatists, denounce their actions, and call on them to lay down their arms,” department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko has vowed to wipe out the insurgents and re-establish order after winning office on May 25 with 54.7 percent of the vote. He’s faced with trying to stabilize an economy that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development expects will shrink 7 percent this year while reclaiming swaths of territory captured by pro-Russian militias.

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