• Rasmussen: 'our major concern now is whether he [Putin] will go beyond Crimea' (Photo: nato.int)

Nato chief: Crimea invasion could be just the beginning

20.03.14 @ 09:14

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen has warned Crimea could be the beginning of a wider military campaign, amid Russia's veiled threats against EU and Nato member Estonia.

He told the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, on Wednesday (19 March): “I see Crimea as an element in a greater pattern, in a more long-term Russian, or at least [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin, strategy. So of course our major concern now is whether he will go beyond Crimea."

He added: “This crisis is not just about Ukraine. We see what could be called ‘21st century revisionism’: Attempts to turn back the clock; to draw new dividing lines on the map; to monopolise markets; shuffle populations.”

He urged Nato members to increase defence spending.

He pledged “further steps to reassure [Nato] allies” and to “step up assistance to Ukraine.”

But as EU leaders meet in Brussels on Thursday amid disagreement on whether to impose economic sanctions on Russia, he admitted the West is struggling to respond.

“There are no quick and easy ways to stand up to global bullies. Because our democracies debate, deliberate, and consider the options before taking decisions. Because we value transparency and seek legitimacy for our choices, and because we see force as the last, not the first, resort,” Rasmussen noted.

For his part, US President Barack Obama, the same day said on TV there is no question of using military means.

"We are not going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine … There is a better path, but I think even the Ukrainians would acknowledge that for us to engage Russia militarily would not be appropriate and would not be good for Ukraine either," he told the NBC broadcaster.

With Russia massing forces on Ukraine’s borders, the immediate concern is that Russia will invade other Ukrainian regions.

But remarks by a Russian diplomat at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday contained a veiled threat to go further.

Russia invaded and annexed Crimea on the pretext of protecting the ethnic Russian majority in the Ukrainian region.

It has long complained that ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia are also mistreated. But the Russian diplomat on Wednesday linked the situation in the Baltic states to what Russia is doing in Ukraine.

According to minutes of the meeting seen by Reuters, he noted that “language should not be used to segregate and isolate groups,” adding that Moscow is "concerned by steps taken in this regard in Estonia as well as in Ukraine.”

The Russian diplomat denied that the rights of minorities in Crimea are being abused.

But EU diplomats paint a different picture.

Jan Tombinski, the EU’s ambassador in Kiev, has called for an investigation into the “shameful” murder of Reshat Ametov, a 39-year-old Crimean Tatar activist, whose body was found on Sunday.

He noted that one Ukrainian soldier was shot dead by pro-Russian paramilitaries. He also called for the release of 10 Ukrainian activists and of “several servicemen from the Ukrainian military” who have been “kidnapped” in Crimea.

Putin claims 95 percent of Russian people support his actions.

But he has tightened restrictions on critics, such as opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was put under house arrest and cut off from the internet shortly before the invasion.

Navalny, in a text smuggled out of his house and published in The New York Times on Wednesday, noted that 50,000 people protested against Putin’s military adventure in Moscow last weekend in the largest such event in recent times.

He said EU and US visa bans on some Russian officials and MPs are “mocked in Russia and even seen as a tacit encouragement to Mr Putin and his entourage.”

He urged the West to blacklist Putin’s oligarch allies instead, in what he called “the Kremlin mafia,” naming eight men: Gennady Timchenko; Arkady and Boris Rotenberg; Yuri Kovalchuk; Vladimir Yakunin; Roma Abramovich; Alisher Usmanov; Igor Sechin; and Alexey Miller.

He described Kovalchuk, a financier, as “Mr Putin’s banker.”

He said the EU and US should also launch money-laundering investigations into their foreign assets.

He noted that his NGO, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, has since 2011”revealed dozens of major cases of graft.”

But he added: “In 90 percent of those cases, Russian money was laundered in the West. Sadly, American, European Union and British law enforcement agencies have [so far] stymied our efforts to investigate such criminal plunder.”