Nato suspends Russia ties
Nato said it has suspended all cooperation with Russia over the Crimea crisis and questioned Moscow's claim to have withdrawn troops from near the Ukrainian border, saying it could not confirm any pullback.
And just hours later the US Congress easily passed an aid package for Ukraine that includes sanctions against Russia for annexing Crimea, in the lawmakers' first binding response.
The West's latest moves came as Moscow heaped even more pressure on Ukraine's teetering economy with a painful gas-price hike, undermining what had been tentative signs of a calming in the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.
Meanwhile, crisis-hit Ukraine yesterday took the first step toward granting more powers to the regions in line with Western wishes but stopped well short of creating the federation sought by Russia.
The government said it would like to eliminate the current practise under which local governors are appointed by the president and move toward an election system. But it said nothing about granting regions the right to set their own trade policies or establish special relations with foreign states.
Ukraine's parliament met one of Moscow's key demands by voting unanimously to disarm all self-defence groups that sprang up around the country during its political crisis, which first erupted in late November over the former government's decision to ditch a landmark EU association agreement.
Kiev also said on Tuesday that joining Nato was not a priority in a move that was also sure to satisfy Russia.
But tensions remained high more than two weeks after Moscow's takeover of Crimea, and Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance was "suspending all practical cooperation with Russia, military and civilian".
He added however that "diplomatic lines of communication" remained open.
Rasmussen said he could not confirm Russia had pulled troops away from near the Ukrainian border as Putin pledged.
Ukraine and the United States have accused Russia of massing thousands of troops near the border and have expressed concern that Moscow plans to seize southeastern parts of Ukraine that are home to many ethnic Russians.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally told of the troop pullback, said she had "no reason" to doubt his word.
With the conciliatory moves from Moscow, Nato stepped back from a floated idea to reinforce the alliance's military presence in countries bordering Russia, preferring for now to suspend cooperation and give more time to talks.
"I think everybody realises that the best way forward is a political and diplomatic dialogue," Rasmussen said, though he added Nato was "very determined to provide effective defence and protection of our allies".
One counter-measure apparently off the table for now is the idea to set up permanent military bases in Nato countries bordering Russia.
Eastern Nato members such as the Baltic states and Poland want a tougher stance against Russia and would welcome a deeper Nato presence within their borders.
However, Nato's supreme allied commander in Europe, US Air Force General Philip Breedlove yesterday said Russia has massed all the forces it needs on Ukraine's border if it were to decide to carry out an "incursion" into the country and it could achieve its objective in three to five days.
Calling the situation "incredibly concerning", he said Nato had spotted signs of movement by a very small part of the Russian force overnight but had no indication that it was returning to barracks.
"This is a very large and very capable and very ready force," Breedlove said in an interview with Reuters and The Wall Street Journal. The Russian force has aircraft and helicopter support as well as field hospitals and electronic warfare capabilities.
He said Russia could have several potential objectives, including an incursion into southern Ukraine to establish a land corridor to Crimea, pushing beyond Crimea to Ukraine's Black Sea port of Odessa or even threatening to connect to Transdniestria, the mainly Russian-speaking, separatist region of Moldova that lies to the west of Ukraine.