Pentagon confirms report of Russian air defense drills
Published March 07, 2014
Russia has reportedly begun large-scale air defense drills as tensions with the West continue escalating over the fate of Crimea.
Roughly 3,500 troops and more than 1,000 units of military hardware will be hosted for about a month in Kapustin Yar, some 280 miles east of the Ukrainian border. The exercise by Russia’s Western Military District, according to a report from RIA Novosti, will culminate with live-firing drills and deployment of air defense systems.
“It is for the first time that all air defense units from the district, including coastal defenses of the Northern Fleet, have gathered in one place,” district spokesman Col. Oleg Kochetkov said, adding that the drills were part of regular training cycles. “It is the largest-ever exercise held by air defense units of the Western Military District.”
Pentagon officials on Friday confirmed the report to Fox News based on the latest intelligence available to U.S. officials. The exercise comes as the speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament said Friday that Crimea — an autonomous Ukrainian region with a majority ethnic Russian population — would become an equal part of Russia if the region votes to leave Ukraine in an upcoming referendum.
Valentina Matvienko met with the head of the Crimean parliament to discuss the region's possible accession to Russia. The parliament of Crimea voted on Thursday to move the referendum date up to March 16 and to include a question on joining Russia.
President Vladimir Putin told reporters on Tuesday that Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, while insisting that residents had the right to determine the region's status — and thus possible independence — by popular vote. The referendum, however, will give Crimea residents only two options: to join Russia or to stay with Ukraine.
"If the decision is made (by referendum), then (Crimea) will become an absolutely equal subject of the Russian Federation," said Matvienko. She emphasized the grievances of Russian-speaking residents in eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, which have been the Russian government's primary justification for possible intervention in its neighbor.
Matvienko said the government welcomed the expedited referendum date, which was originally slated to coincide with nationwide elections on May 25. She dismissed that vote, saying there are "no conditions for honest, equal, transparent and open elections" in the country.
The Russian parliament has scrambled to introduce legislation that would simplify the procedure for Crimea to join Russia. According to current constitutional law, Russia can only annex foreign territory by an agreement "initiated ... by the given foreign government." Because Crimea is still legally Ukrainian territory, that would entail signing an agreement with new authorities in Kiev, who have condemned Russian moves in the region.
New legislation would sidestep that requirement, according to members of parliament, who said a new bill could be passed as soon as next week.
If the new bill is passed, Crimea would be the first territory to officially join Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which broke away from the Caucasus nation of Georgia after a brief 2008 war with Russia, have been recognized as independent by Moscow, but there have been few serious moves to enable them to join Russia.
Pentagon officials announced Thursday that six U.S. F-15 fighter jets had arrived in Lithuania to bolster air patrols over the Baltics. A U.S. warship, USS Truxtun, is also now in the Black Sea to participate in long-planned exercises.
The fighter jets and 60 U.S. military personnel landed at Siauliai Air Base in Lithuania, adding to the four F-15s and 150 troops already there to do the air patrol mission. The additional fighters came from RAF Lakenheath. The Navy destroyer is participating in exercises with Romania and Bulgaria and is expected to be in the Black Sea for several days.
The U.S. and other Western nations have begun preparing sanctions against Russia for its recent move to send military troops into Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.