UK & World News

  • 24 March 2014, 3:03

Russia Troop Build-Up 'Sizeable And Ready' - Nato

The Russian military force on Ukraine's eastern border is "very, very sizeable and very, very ready", according to Nato's top military commander.

General Philip Breedlove said he was worried they could make a move for Moldova's breakaway Transdniestria region.

"There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transdniestria if the decision was made to do that and that is very worrisome," said Nato's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.

Transdniestria, a narrow strip of land to Ukraine's southwest, already has a Russian military presence and most people there favour a union with the country.

Russian troops violently flushed out the remaining pockets of Ukrainian military influence in Crimea on Saturday, smashing armoured vehicles through the walls of Belbek airforce base in a swift takeover.

President Putinlast week signed papers making Crimea part of Russia at a ceremony in Moscow, and most experts agree there is no way of winning back the region.

Speaking to Sky News, Ukraine's Ambassador to the UK, Volodymyr Khandogiy, said European powers had not done enough to help his country.

"The US is more resolute in their actions and words. We appreciate what Europe is doing (but) we would have liked a more aggressive approach," said Mr Khandogiy.

"If I'm asked if Europe has done enough I would say no."

Foreign Secretary William Hague has also warned Russia it is not simply facing "short-term pain" of limited sanctions, but long-term "isolation and stagnation" following its landgrab in Crimea.

In an article for The Sunday Telegraph, he wrote: "The European Commission are working now on more far-reaching economic measures that will be imposed if Russia takes further steps to undermine Ukraine."

He said Britain and its allies had "never given up on diplomacy or sought a path of permanent confrontation with Russia".

"But nor should European nations run scared before bullying behaviour," he added.

Mr Hague said it was now necessary to "contemplate a new state of relations with Russia that is very different to the last 20 years".

Russia took control of several Ukrainian military bases on Saturday, in a territory which it now firmly considers its own.

Several hundred protesters raised the Russian flag after storming an airforce base in the western Crimean town of Novofedorivka while pro-Kremlin forces watched.

In the city of Sevastopol, armed men seized control of the Slavutich, one of the last navy ships in Crimea still flying Ukraine's flag.

But the most dramatic episode saw Russian special forces break into the nearby Belbek air base, which has long been the pride of Ukraine's air force.

Sky News Chief Correspondent Stuart Ramsay was inside the sprawling compound as the attack took place.

"They came through the walls in armoured personnel carriers," he said, adding that the forces were "all balaclaved" and wore "slightly different uniforms to regular Russian soldiers".

Ramsay also heard "big explosions" which he said were probably blast bombs to disorientate the Ukrainian troops, who were then made to line up on a parade ground.

He said the Ukrainians were "massively outnumbered and outgunned" by the Russians, with just small arms and a few machine guns.

Ukraine's defence ministry later confirmed its men had left the base and said a journalist and a Ukrainian soldier had been wounded during the takeover.

Sky's Foreign Affairs Editor Sam Kiley said the base was an important capture for the Russians.

"It is a base that is home to a significant number, possibly a third, of the main combat aircraft of the Ukrainian air force - the MIG-29s - and their support aircraft and the structures that go with them," he said.

"If you look at that and the blockage of the Ukrainian Navy in the shared port of Sevastopol in Crimea, what you see here is the Russians doing two things.

"The first is to seize territory that they now lay claim to and the second is to cripple the Ukrainian armed forces.

"That is extremely important to them if they want to move into the Ukrainian eastern provinces where there are a predominance of Russian speakers."

The Foreign Office has extended its travel warnings and is advising against all but essential travel to Kharkiv, Donetsk and Lugansk due to increased tension in eastern Ukraine.

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