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July 26, 2014

US Defense Department Warns of Arms to Eastern Ukraine

by VOA News

The top U.S. military officer says he thinks Russia is a reluctant participant in Ukraine's conflict.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says he believes the Russian military and its leaders are "probably somewhat reluctant participants" in the form of warfare being used in Ukraine.

Dempsey's comments come as the U.S. has accused Russia of an imminent transfer of Russian arms to Ukrainian separatists.  The U.S. has also accused Russia of continuing to fire artillery across the border into Ukraine, but the U.S. says it has seen no indications that Ukraine has fired into Russia.

General Dempsey, speaking at a security forum in the western U.S. state of Colorado, said he is concerned that the "rising tide of nationalism" that has been ignited in Russia may slip into other parts of Europe. 

"My fear is actually, you know if I have a fear about this it's that Putin may actually light a fire that he loses control of," said Dempsey. "In other words, you know I; these ethnic enclaves, there's a rising tide of nationalism and nationalism can be a very dangerous instinct and impulse. There's a rising tide of nationalism in Europe right now that has been created by, in many ways, by these Russian activities that I find to be quite dangerous."

Pentagon weapons concerns

U.S. Defense Department spokesman Steve Warren said Friday officials believe the transfer of Russian arms into Ukraine will involve "heavier caliber, more capable" artillery systems than those used previously.  The U.S. for weeks has said Russia is supplying the separatists with arms and equipment.

Warren said the U.S. has seen the systems moving closer to the border of Ukraine, but the Pentagon does not have an exact timeline when they will be delivered.  

Warren also said the systems being moved are surface-to-surface systems, not surface-to-air systems like the one suspected in last week's downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet in which nearly 300 people died,  "They're not precision munitions, Warren added, "and unquestionably there is an increased risk of civilian casualties.” 

Designed to destroy buildings, roads and military positions, the launchers could be a "game changer" in Ukraine, according to another Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Warren said the advent of the Russian artillery, and potential volleys into Ukraine, pose “a great concern."

“We believe that they are able to transfer this equipment at any time,” Warren said of the Russians, noting the United States continues “to work closely with the Ukrainians” on several levels, including by supplying nonlethal aid.

Warren said these new developments are of "great concern," as they signal a likely increase in the risk of civilian casualties in eastern Ukraine.

EU adds sanctions

European Union ambassadors met on Friday in Brussels where they voted to extend Ukraine-related sanctions, targeting top Russian intelligence officials and leaders of the pro-Russia revolt in eastern Ukraine.  Among the 15 new people sanctioned was the head of Russia's Federal Security Service.  Eighteen companies were also added to the sanctions list.

Russia's Foreign Ministry lashed out at the new sanctions Saturday, saying in a statement they will undermine the fight against terrorism by limiting cooperation from Moscow.

On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands.  White House officials said the leaders agreed in the evening conversation that more sanctions need to be imposed on Russia.

Dutch, Australian and Ukrainian foreign ministers met in Kyiv Thursday to discuss the recovery process.  They demanded that an international team under the authority of the United Nations secure the crash site so the rest of the remains can be collected and the investigation proceed without interference from separatists.

The U.S. has sent investigators from at least two federal agencies – the Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Transportation and Safety Board – to assist with the crash investigation.

Australia beefs up security team

Australia is close to finalizing a plan to send 100 additional police and some defense force personnel to Europe to join a planned Dutch-led international security force to secure the crash site, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Friday.

Armed pro-Russian separatists control the area and have hampered investigators' attempts to access.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers, some of whom will be armed, will join a contingent of 90 AFP officers already in London waiting for a deal with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to be approved by the country's parliament.

Abbott stressed that the team, which would include countries that lost citizens in the disaster, would not be going in as part of a military mission.

“This is a humanitarian mission, with a clear and simple objective,” Abbott told reporters. “I expect the operation on the ground in Ukraine, should the deployment go ahead, to last no longer than a few weeks.”

Search and recovery

The international police team would be tasked with ensuring a thorough search of the site so all remains are recovered and sent to the Netherlands for identification. The mission would be complete within a few weeks of arriving, Abbott told the Associated Press.

Abbott announced on Thursday that 50 police officers had been deployed to London ahead of the mission, but a police spokeswoman said on Friday that the number was 90. It was unclear why the discrepancy had occurred.

On Tuesday, Abbott said that Russian-backed rebels were tampering with evidence on “an industrial scale” and argued that outside police or possibly military forces were needed to ensure that did not continue.

The Boeing 777 was shot down last week in eastern Ukraine en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 passengers and crew on board. Twenty eight Australians were killed. 

The urgency to secure the area grew after three Australian officials traveled to the crash site on Thursday and found more wreckage and human remains, Abbott said.

"With these remains exposed to the ravages of heat and animals and to the continuing possibility of human interference, it's more important than ever that the site be properly secured," Abbott told AP. "Our objective is the remains can be recovered, that the investigation can go ahead and that justice can be done."

Ukrainian offensive

Elsewhere, the French news agency AFP reported Ukrainian troops have retaken the strategically important city of Lysychansk in eastern Ukraine, as they press on with their offensive to stamp out a pro-Russian rebellion,  Poroshenko said.

"Ukrainian forces have raised the flag over the town council in Lysychansk," the presidency said in a statement late Thursday.

Lysychansk - a city of around 105,000 some 90 kilometers northwest of the rebel stronghold of Luhansk - was seized by separatists in early April at the start of a bloody insurgency that has now claimed the lives of some 1,000 people, including the nearly 300 on board downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, AFP reported.

VOA's Jeff Seldin contributed to this report from the Pentagon. Additional information was provided by Reuters and the Associated Press.