Russia ratcheted up international tensions over Ukraine by a big notch Saturday, March 8, the day after mobilizing air and coastal defenses for a large-scale month-long drill to prevent the disruption of the May 16 Crimean referendum. The defense ministry in Moscow announced: “Russia is considering halting foreign inspections of its strategic weapons arsenal, including nuclear-capable missiles, in response to "threats" from the United States and NATO over the Ukraine crisis.
Lines of tanks were seen Saturday heading from Russian bases towards Crimea.
A high-ranking defense ministry official in Moscow, who was not named, released this statement to all Russian news agencies: "The unfounded threats towards Russia from the United States and NATO over its policy on Ukraine are seen by us as an unfriendly gesture that allows the declaration of force majeure circumstances."
By this statement, Moscow announces that due to "force majeure circunstances" it no longer feels bound by its commitment to international inspections under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with the United States and the Vienna Document between Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) member states.
START, which was signed between the United States and Russia in 1991, mandated the mutual reduction by the two powers of nuclear warheads, missiles and nuclear missiles carried by submarines, under international inspection..
The signing of the first START treaty in 1991 marked the historic end of the Cold War and the Soviet empire's breakup.
Two years ago, Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev renewed the treaty. The incumbent Russian president Vladimir Putin is now threatening to abdicate from the 23-year pact, i.e., warning the United States and the West that Moscow is prepared to revert to the belligerent posture maintained by the Soviet Union in the years of the Cold War unless they back off on punitive measures over the Ukraine dispute.
In a phone conversation to US Secretary of State John Kerry, Friday night, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned against “hasty and reckless steps capable of causing harm to Russian-American relations – particularly… sanctions, which,” he said, “would inevitably hit the United States like a boomerang.”
debkafile Friday tracked the military escalation centering on Crimea.
Amid spiraling tensions between Moscow and the West over the fate of Crimea, Russia has mobilized its air and coastal defenses and more than 1,000 missile and tank units for a month-long drill in Kapustin Yar, around 450 km from the Ukraine border in the Astrakhan district. debkafile’s military sources report that this facility is home to one of Russia’s biggest missile bases. The exercise covers the whole of March and early April, including the March 16 Crimean referendum on secession and its aftermath.
It will conclude with live-firing drills and the deployment of air defense systems in early April, when Moscow calculates they may be needed to thwart any Ukrainian or Western attempt to disrupt Crimea’s expected application to join the Russian Federation.
The referendum, put forward by two weeks to March 16, will ask roughly three million Crimean citizens for a straight “yes” or “no” on whether to remain part of Ukraine or secede to Russia. Since around 65 percent of the voters are ethnic Russians, the region’s future is not hard to predict.
The Russian parliament announced voting on a bill enabling annexation of Crimea to the Russian Federation at the request of a majority would take place on March 21.
President Barack Obama, in an hour-long phone call to President Vladimir Putin early Friday, March 7, declared the referendum was a violation of international law, echoing European Union leaders.
After imposing sanctions on individuals abetting Crimea’s breakaway from Ukraine, Obama urged the Russian leader to cancel the referendum and return his forces to the bases Russia holds on lease in Crimea.
Putin replied that the regime in Kiev and its decisions were “absolutely illegitimate.” He said he appreciated the importance of the Russian-American relationship to global security, and maintained that bilateral ties “should not be sacrificed for individual – albeit rather important – international issues.”
Col. Oleg Kochetkov of the Kapustin Yar district command described the new Russian deployment as “the largest-ever exercise held by air defense units of the Western Military District.” He added: “It is for the first time that all air defense units from the district, including coastal defenses of the Northern Fleet, have gathered in one place.”
Taking part in the exercise are S-300 long-range surface-to-air missiles, Buk-M1 medium-range missiles and Strela-10 short-range missiles.
debkafile’s military sources report that Kapustin Yar is home to one of Russia’s biggest missile bases. From there, the army tested on March 3 its new anti-air missile system S-500, followed the next day by the test-launch of an RT-2PM Topol (NATO codenamed SS-25 Sickle) ICMB.
This flurry of Russian military momentum is partly in response to the military steps announced by the Pentagon in the last 48 hours:
Friday, March 7, the USS Truxtun guided-missile destroyer crossed the Bosporus into the Black Sea to join the fleets of NATO allies Rumania and Bulgaria in a naval exercise, the day after the Pentagon unveiled plans to put another six US F-15 fighters on an air patrol mission over the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Twelve US F-16 fighter bombers and 300 military personnel are to be transferred to Poland over the weekend and more US military exercises are planned in areas around the Russia starting Sunday.