The Cable

Putin Calls U.S. Bluff As Pro-Russian Forces Seize Crimean Bases

Masked Russian-speaking troops continued to seize Ukrainian facilities in the country's Crimean peninsula Wednesday in the face of repeated calls by the United States and European Union to de-escalate the crisis.

The bold troop offensives came two days after President Barack Obama vowed to "impose further sanctions" on Russia if it continues to interfere with Ukraine -- a threat that has yet to be fulfilled. (Before Moscow's annexation of Crimea, the U.S. slapped asset freezes on seven Russian officials and suspended preparations for the G-8 Summit in Sochi this summer.)

The latest blow to Ukrainian sovereignty was the seizure of its naval headquarters in Sevastopol by militiamen on Wednesday. According to reports on the ground, the Russian-speaking militiamen wore helmets and uniforms with no identifying insignia. After several hundred of them stormed the naval base without resistance from Ukrainian soldiers, Crimean authorities arrested the Ukrainian navy commander, Rear Adm. Sergei Haiduk, and took control of the base.

According to Ukraine's Defense Ministry, the raid caused no injuries and was carried out by pro-Russian militiamen and Cossacks. Russian state media said Haiduk is currently being questioned by Crimean prosecutors.

The seizure occurred 24 hours after a gunfight between Ukrainian troops and a local militia at another military facility in Crimea resulted in the deaths of two men. In an effort to de-escalate the crisis and end future hostilities, Ukraine's acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk requested that his Vice Prime Minister Vitaliy Yarema and Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh travel to Crimea. However, Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov refused to allow them entry.

"They are not welcome in Crimea," he said Wednesday. "They will not be allowed to enter in Crimea. They will be sent back."

Russia's brazen seizure of Crimea in the region has rattled U.S. allies in Eastern Europe, a cohort Vice President Biden is trying to soothe with two consecutive days of meetings with the leaders of Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.

"As long as Russia proceeds along this dark path, they will receive increasing political and economic isolation," Biden said in Vilnius, Lithuania on Wednesday, before his flight back to Washington that evening. "Russia cannot escape that the world is changing and rejecting outright their behavior ... And that there is a price to pay for naked aggression."

What that price may be remains uncertain. The U.S. promised further sanctions of Russian officials on Monday after it imposed asset freezes on seven Russian officials, including Vladislav Surkov, Sergey Glazyev, Leonid Slutsky and Dmitry Rogozin. But Biden's trip to eastern Europe has only brought modest promises of "steadfast" support for allies such as Poland. Observers are skeptical that U.S. sanctions could ultimately do much to influence Russia given the paltry amount of annual trade between the two nations. European Union sanctions could deal a serious blow to the Russian economy, but it could destabilize Europe's as well. 

On Monday, the EU unveiled a list of 21 Ukrainian and Russian officials targeted by sanctions, but has yet to impose further penalties on Russia. Germany's cabinet paved the way for signing the EU's trade deal with Ukraine on Wednesday by approving closer political relations with the country. 

In Washington, where both houses of Congress are in recess, lawmakers have urged the administration to impose further sanctions on Russia and curb its stranglehold of Europe's energy market. "Putin is making the most of his energy grip over Ukraine," Rep. Ed Royce of California, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Tuesday.  "If we are serious about challenging Putin's aggression, the U.S. and our European allies should make an all out effort to break that grip."

Royce and other lawmakers, have suggested boosting exports of U.S. natural gas. But as Foreign Policy reported last week, that's easier said than done, as much of U.S. gas has already been snapped up by customers with long-term contracts.

 

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The Cable

Exclusive: South Sudanese Military Targets United Nations

South Sudan's relationship with the United Nations has plummeted to an unprecedented low as authorities have beaten U.N. personnel and relief workers, forcibly searched their vehicles, and organized public demonstrations demonizing the world body as an enemy of the fledgling African nation, according to a confidential internal report obtained by Foreign Policy.

The U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), compiled the list of attacks -- as well as a separate incident in which South Sudanese security agents threatened to arrest a local U.N. employee if he refused to spy on the international organization -- in a March 18 paper to the U.N. Security Council.

The paper found that the South Sudanese government had violated the Status of Forces agreement that provides immunity for U.N. personnel dozens of times between Feb. 9 and March 12. It also cites three incidents in which anti-government forces have either refused or delayed U.N. requests to land at rebel-controlled airport in the rebel-controlled South Sudanese city of Malakal.

South Sudanese forces have also routinely stopped U.N. convoys transporting food, medicines, and other humanitarian goods, and in many cases, beat the truck drivers, according to the report.

They have also blocked the United Nations from conducting routine land and air patrols throughout South Sudan, as well as impeding the work of U.N. de-mining experts in Jonglei state. In one case, explosive experts from the U.N. Mine Action Service (UNMAS), were prevented by South Sudanese and Ugandan government forces from clearing bombs from an area south of Bor.

In one March 11 incident, soldiers from the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), stopped a U.N. relief truck carrying emergency reproductive health kits, the report stated. "The driver and his assistant were instructed to offload the medical equipment and were beaten by SPLA soldiers when they refused to do so." On the same day, SPLA soldiers accosted the driver of a vehicle delivering humanitarian goods from the town of Rumbek in Lakes state to Yambio in Western Equatoria state. "The driver was beaten, made to offload the cargo and forced to pay the soldiers money," according to the U.N. report.

The incidents don't appear to have been isolated cases.

On Feb. 21, South Sudanese police stopped employees from a U.N. aid agency that were transporting water to a camp for displaced people in the town of Bor. The report said that the police were reportedly acting under instructions of the SPLA to "not allow any truck delivering food or water to proceed to the protection side, unless cash was paid for each truck."

Relations between the U.N. and the South Sudanese government have been tense for well over a year, but they have markedly deteriorated since the world's youngest independent country erupted into civil war in December 2013. The U.N. infuriated the South Sudanese government in January when it refused to allow the country's information minister, Michael Makuei, and his two armed guards to enter a U.N. compound where thousands of civilians had sought refuge from fighting between government and rebel forces. The South Sudanese government claimed that some of the rebels had slipped into the camp. "I think the U.N. wants to be the government of the South [Sudan]," South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit complained at the time.

In a sign of the deepening mistrust, South Sudanese security agents on Feb. 12 detained a citizen employed by the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), for several hours of interrogation. He was "questioned about his work" according to the paper. "He was also asked to provide information on UNMISS operations and movements in the State, or risk an arrest if he refused."

The atmosphere worsened early this month, after South Sudanese security forces uncovered weapons and ammunition concealed in U.N. vehicles headed in the direction of a Ghanaian peacekeeping outpost in the town of Bentiu. The weapons were packed in crates whose labels said they contained food rations. Under the terms of its agreement with South Sudan, the U.N. is only allowed to ship its peacekeepers weapons by air, not by land.

South Sudanese officials immediately accused the U.N. of trying to smuggle the weapons to rebel forces. On March 11, a senior South Sudanese official delivered a speech at an anti-U.N. rally urging locals to view the peacekeeping force as an "enemy of South Sudan," according to the report. The report does not name the official, who is described only as the governor of Lakes State. Maj. Gen. Matur Chut Dhoul is the acting governor of Lakes State.

The Ghanaian commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force in South Sudan, Maj. Gen. Delali Johnson, issued a statement on March 11 saying it was a "highly regrettable mistake" that the U.N. had transported the weapons by road in violation of its agreement.

Johnson insisted, though, that it was the result of a "packing error," not a deliberate attempt to conceal weapons transfer. "The weapons and ammunition belong to the Ghanaian contingent which is to deploy in Bentiu," he said. The weapons, he added, "were never intended to serve any other purpose than that of peace and protection of South Sudanese civilians."

The U.N. sent a high-level delegation to South Sudan to determine how it happened.

But even before the incident, South Sudanese forces were accusing the U.N. of supporting the rebels.

On March 6, a U.N. de-mining specialist in the town of Yei, in Central Equatoria state, was "searched, robbed and reportedly beaten at a SPLA checkpoint by soldiers who accused the U.N. of providing support to the opposition forces."

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