(VOA News - April 23, 2014 4:50 AM) U.S. Army paratroopers landed Wednesday in Poland, at the start of military maneuvers aimed at easing anxieties in allied eastern European countries alarmed at Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
The Pentagon said the exercises, slated to last about a month, initially involve about 600 troops, including 150 members of an airborne combat team based in Italy. Additional units are set for deployment in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
The troop landing comes one day after Ukraine scrapped a truce and resumed its push against armed pro-Russian separatists occupying buildings in several Ukrainian cities near the Russian border. Moscow responded to the move with a warning that it will retaliate, if the interests of Russian-speaking citizens in the region come under attack.
Ukraine’s decision to resume what it calls “anti-terrorist” operations came after the discovery of two bodies near the rebel-controlled city of Slovyansk.
One of the victims was identified Tuesday as a local member of acting Ukraine President Oleksandr Turchynov’s political party whose body was said to show signs of torture.
Ukraine has formally called off an Easter truce with pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east and announced “anti-terrorist operations” are on again.
First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaliy Yarema told reporters during a Cabinet meeting Wednesday that “appropriate steps” will be taken and that results will be seen shortly.
Yarema said Ukraine has received assurances from the United States that it would not be left alone to face Russian aggression. He expressed hope that the U.S. support will be more substantive.
Ukraine’s interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, has already ordered security forces to resume “anti-terrorist” operations in eastern Ukraine. His order came just hours after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden ended a two-day trip to Kiyv Tuesday.
Related video report by VOA’s Jeff Custe
Moscow threatens retaliation
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told state television that Russia would retaliate if its legitimate interests or Russians are attacked. He said Moscow’s response would be the same as it was in South Ossetia in 2008, which led to a brief war with Georgia.
Meanwhile, Russian military units on Wednesday conducted drills to rehearse for a parade in the southwestern Rostov region, which borders Ukraine, a spokesman for Russia’s southern military district said.
The spokesman had earlier said that the units in Rostovregion were conducting exercises. Reuters Television footage from the drill showed columns of military vehicles, including jeeps, armored personnel carriers, mobile multiple rocket launchers, and mobile surface-to-airmissile launchers, driving in formation at a military aerodrome.
Separately, Russia accused Kyiv and the U.S. of distorting an agreement reached in Geneva last week to defuse the crisis in Ukraine and of ignoring what it said were provocative actions by Ukrainian nationalists.
Russia still believes the West is serious about seeking peace in Ukraine but “the facts speak of the opposite,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement issued Wednesday.
It repeated Moscow’s calls for the immediate withdrawal of Ukrainian military units from southeastern Ukraine and the start of an inclusive dialogue in the former Soviet republic.
Ukraine says, and many in the West agree, that the separatist unrest is being staged in large part by undercover Russian special forces with the aim of destabilizing Ukraine and creating a pretext for a possible military intervention.
Ukrainian military moves last week to drive separatists from government buildings they have seized in about a dozen cities and towns failed.
Pro-Russian gunmen are demanding the right to hold referendums on seceeding from Ukraine and joining Russia. A vote last month in Crimea, which Kyiv and many in West condemned as illegitimate, led to the Russian annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby does not deny the move is the result of what he called “Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.”
“If there is a message to Moscow, it is the same exact message that we take our obligations very seriously on the continent of Europe,” said Kirby
The bilateral exercises will last about a month. Kirby said new troops will then rotate in for fresh exercises throughout the rest of the year or longer.
Kirby said placing troops on the ground is more than a symbolic gesture. He called for Russia to remove its forces from the border with Ukraine and respect Ukrainian sovereignty.
Meanwhile, Russia on Wednesday conducted military exercises in its south-western Rostov region, which borders Ukraine, a spokesman for Russia’s southern military district said.
The spokesman declined to give details on the drills. However, Reuters Television footage from the exercises showed columns of military vehicles, including jeeps, armored personnel carriers, mobile multiple rocket launchers, and mobile surface-to-air missile launchers, driving in formation at a military aerodrome.
By Western estimates, Russia has about 40,000 troops on its border with Ukraine.
The resumption of “anti-terrorist” operations by Kyiv was triggered in part by the apparent killing by a pro-Russian mob of a politician of the same party affiliation as Ukraine’s interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov.
Video footage from last Thursday on local news site gorlovka.ua shows angry scenes outside the town hall of Horlivka, between the separatist flashpoint cities of Donetsk and Slovyansk, as town councilman Volodymyr Rybak is manhandled by several men, among them a masked man in camouflage, while other people hurl abuse.
Rybak had tried to remove a flag of the separatist Donetsk Republic, the website said.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said that after the confrontation Rybak was seen being bundled into a car by masked men in camouflage. His body was found on Saturday near Slovyansk.
He and another, unidentified, man appeared to have been tortured and dumped alive in a river to drown, police concluded.
Turchynov said that such crimes are being committed “with the full support and connivance of the Russian Federation.”
Gas talks scheduled
The European Commission said on Wednesday that Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger will meet Slovakian and Ukrainian ministers on Thursday in Bratislava to discuss the possibility of reverse flows to pump gas back to Kyiv.
The discussions between Oettinger, Ukrainian Energy Minister Yuri Prodan and Slovakian Economy Minister Tomas Malatinsky will take place before another meeting between the Commission, Ukraine and Russia due on Monday on Moscow.
Russian gas giant Gazprom has said it will turn off supplies to Ukraine next month unless Kyiv pays its outstanding debts.
Meanwhile, Austria says more sanctions on Russia would only inflame tensions between Moscow and Kyiv.
”I would fundamentally support what the German foreign minister [Frank-Walter] Steinmeier made clear again today: that conflict between Russia and Ukraine should not be inflamed by additional sanctions, but on the contrary, that de-escalation is what is required,” chancellor Werner Faymann told reporters after the Austrian government’s weekly cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
Both the EU and the U.S. are considering a third round of sanctions against Russia if it escalates tensions in Ukraine.
Ukrainian confectionery tycoon Petro Poroshenko has a chance of winning the May 25 presidential election in the first round, an opinion poll indicated on Wednesday.
It found 48.4 percent of Ukrainians who planned to vote favored Poroshenko. That is just short of the absolute majority needed to avoid a runoff against the second-placed candidate, who the survey found would be former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko with 14.0 percent.
Poroshenko, who sits in parliament as an independent and whose worth is estimated at about $1.3 billion, supported the pro-European uprising which ousted Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych in February. He served as foreign minister and economy minister in previous governments.
The new poll of 6,200 people was taken from April 9-16 by four agencies led by the SOCIS Institute in Kyiv. It was conducted in all of Ukraine’s regions, except Crimea.
Some reporting for this report was contributed by Reuters.