U.S. says Russia’s role is growing

Putin is sharply criticized as more troops and heavier artillery are moved near the country’s border with Ukraine
David S. Cloud, Steven Zeitchik
Los Angeles Times | July 26, 2014

The Pentagon said Friday that Russia was moving troops and adding heavier artillery near its border with Ukraine where separatists are battling government forces, the latest escalation of Moscow’s involvement in the conflict.

Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said that U.S. intelligence reports showed Russia was planning to give the separatists up to a dozen 200-millimeter rocket launchers, a system more powerful than the rebels have received before.

The arms had been moved near Russia’s southwest border with Ukraine and their movement across the border appeared "imminent," Warren said.

U.S. officials said Russia was stepping up its direct role in the conflict after gains by Ukrainian forces, who claimed to have retaken the city of Lysychansk in eastern Ukraine from Moscow-backed separatists. After the downing of a Malaysian jetliner over Ukraine last week, President Obama had called for a cease-fire in the conflict and for Moscow to de-escalate its role.

Instead, "for the last several days, Russian forces using Russian artillery from Russian soil have conducted attacks against Ukrainian military positions," Warren said.

The Russians also have increased their troop presence in the border region to about 12,000, he said.

Russia on Friday called the U.S. accusations of Moscow’s involvement in the Ukrainian conflict a "smear campaign."

A U.S. military official, who requested anonymity to discuss intelligence reports, said rocket salvos appeared aimed at preventing Ukrainian forces from regaining control of the border region southeast of the city of Donetsk.

He said that U.S. intelligence had seen nearly 100 shell craters in one area, indicating that location had been struck by a heavy barrage.

The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey R. Pyatt, also sharply criticized Russia’s behavior.

Russia could "take this crisis as an opportunity to put things back on a diplomatic track, instead what we have seen from the Kremlin is the pouring of gasoline on the fire," Pyatt said.

Russian President Vladimir "Putin can end this with one phone call," he said.

Pyatt told reporters that the latest Russian military activity — which he described as a sign that an escalation had "unambiguously occurred" — had worrying parallels to the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March.

"If we roll back the clock to the end of February or March, we can all remember the Russian denials. ‘There are no Russian troops in Crimea. These aren’t our little green men.’ And history tells us that these little green men were Russian special forces," Pyatt said.

He cited communications intercepts by Ukraine suggesting contact between Russian military commanders and separatist leaders and said that Washington has validated the intercepts’ authenticity.

"The totality of the picture should be clear to anybody who has their eyes open," Pyatt said.

Some congressional leaders, notably Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), have urged the administration to supply Ukraine with weapons in addition to food and other nonlethal supplies in the country’s fight against the separatists.

The administration does not appear to be considering that option.

Putin has denied supplying weapons to the separatists, who are seeking independence and possible annexation by Russia, and said he seeks a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

On Friday in Kiev, the British ambassador to Ukraine echoed U.S. comments about the Russian leader.

"There is a cooperative path to take and a noncooperative, destructive path," Ambassador Simon Smith said as he spoke of sanctions against Moscow. "The logic of [our] policy is if you choose the destructive path and continue down that path, we’ll continue down that path too."

Pyatt also expressed frustration over the actions of the separatists who control the Malyasia Airlines Flight 17 wreckage site.

Dutch investigators have said they continue to be thwarted in their efforts to gain full access to the area, and inspectors from many countries remain grounded in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, or at home worrying about the security of the site.

A small number of investigators, including some from Malaysia, where the flight was headed, and the Netherlands, where it originated, have been able to reach the zone, and wreckage has sat unguarded — or, in some cases, been carted away — since the July 17 downing of the plane.


Daily Press Briefing – July 25, 2014 [excerpts on Ukraine]
Marie Harf, Deputy Spokesperson

Washington, DC
July 25, 2014


QUESTION: Ukraine.

QUESTION: Sorry. The UN says 250,000 Ukrainians have left their homes; most of them went to Russia. Do you see it as humanitarian crisis or just – not so long ago answering a similar question, you said they could be going to Russia to visit their grandmother. Do you see it as a humanitarian crisis as it is now?

MS. HARF: Well, I have – I can’t confirm those numbers. I quite frankly haven’t seen that from my UN reports, so I’m happy to fact-check that for you and see if we can confirm what we think the numbers are.

We know there’s a humanitarian crisis here that’s been – that’s arisen that didn’t occur there before because of what the Russian-backed separatists have done in the region. Obviously, when there’s active fighting, when you have separatists like we’ve seen shooting down airplanes, attacking innocent people, there’s going to be a humanitarian situation. So we’ve seen that occur. I can see if I have exact numbers for you. I just don’t have them in front of me.

QUESTION: Are you saying that (inaudible) had no role in escalating the crisis? Around 300 civilians have died in the shellings.

MS. HARF: I mean, I think there’s absolutely no equivalency here. Ukraine is a country with borders that Russia violated. It’s not about not having a role. Russia —

QUESTION: Are you saying that, still, Kyiv had no role in escalating the crisis going – moving forward? It has —

MS. HARF: Kyiv has a —

QUESTION: It’s just Russia. Are you just blaming Russia in the whole —

MS. HARF: Yes, it – yes, because Russia invaded a foreign country. The Ukrainians have a responsibility and a duty to protect their citizens and their territory, which is what they’re doing. Russia should de-escalate, move back, and stop backing separatists who are taking down Ukrainian planes – fighter jets, as we’ve seen – and are attacking innocent civilians.



QUESTION: — your ambassador at NATO has said that there are now 15,000 Russian troops massed on the border. Are you in a position to repeat or elaborate on that?

MS. HARF: Yeah, we have seen troops massing at the border, as we’ve seen in the past. I have no reason to disagree with those numbers, yeah.


Yesterday, after the briefing in which you said that there was artillery fire coming from Russian territory into Ukraine, and also that the Russians intended to provide the separatists with heavier —

MS. HARF: Multiple rocket launchers.

QUESTION: Right, multiple – with heavier multiple rocket launchers. After the briefing, Ambassador Rice tweeted out very similar or exact – pretty much the same thing. And now this morning —

MS. HARF: I wasn’t going rogue up here, I promise.

QUESTION: No, I don’t – I’m not saying you were. And then this morning, or earlier today, I’m sure you know the Pentagon also said that there was evidence that these —

MS. HARF: Yes.

QUESTION: — new, heavier, more powerful systems were going in. I asked – had asked you yesterday if you could be more specific, at least about – if you couldn’t get into the intelligence about it, if you could identify – say what these systems are.

So I’d like to repeat that question, but also ask you if you can be more – if you can elaborate on what it is that makes you believe that this is – that this allegation is actually factual and true.

MS. HARF: Well, we’ve seen indications that this is the case. We felt strongly enough to talk about it publicly. I can’t underline the information that had led to that assessment. We don’t have specifics about what those systems might look like to outline, but again, we’re continuing to watch, continuing to gather information. And as we do, we’ll attempt to share it.

QUESTION: At the Pentagon, the officials say that these are 200-caliber multiple rocket launcher systems. Is that —

MS. HARF: I don’t have that detail in front of me. I don’t have a reason to disagree with it; I just don’t have that in front of me.

QUESTION: Okay. So two day —

MS. HARF: I’m happy to check if I can confirm that.

QUESTION: Okay. Two days ago, there was a report in a Ukrainian newspaper, which I have here, which talked about Tornados, which are what – are these 200-caliber multiple rocket launcher systems going into Ukraine from Russia. Is this what the intelligence is?

MS. HARF: That’s certainly not what we could consider intelligence that underlies our assessments. I also don’t have the 200-caliber detail in front of me. I’m happy to check and see on that specifically.


MS. HARF: Obviously, we make these assessments not based on any one piece of information, even classified information. It’s on a range of information. That would certainly not underpin an intelligence assessment, Matt.

QUESTION: Okay. Well – okay, that’s good to know. But you can’t offer us what it is, aside from —

MS. HARF: We don’t have more to – we don’t —

QUESTION: I mean, do you know if this report played any role in —

MS. HARF: I – let me check on that specific piece.

QUESTION: I have it for you. I can give it to you.

MS. HARF: Okay.

QUESTION: I just got it, so —

MS. HARF: Okay. Let me check on that.

And again, I didn’t —

QUESTION: But it’s from – but it is from two days ago, and it says that – it says what you’re saying, but it’s not – clearly not an intelligence report, and because in the past you have cited social media and open-source reporting —

MS. HARF: As part of the assessment.

QUESTION: I understand that. I just want to make sure that this, or this kind of thing, is not the only thing that you’re going on.

MS. HARF: Having been an intelligence analyst, believe me —

QUESTION: All right.

MS. HARF: — intelligence assessments are based on much more than just that.

QUESTION: Good. Well —

MS. HARF: And before we go public with them, we make sure we have multiple sources to back things up.



QUESTION: Well, I mean, I hope so. But the problem is is that you can’t —

MS. HARF: But you don’t trust us. It’s not that I don’t trust you; it’s that the world doesn’t —

QUESTION: It’s not a question of – it’s not a question of —

MS. HARF: I can almost ask the questions for you.

QUESTION: No, it’s not a question of me – of trust. It’s a question of whether you can back up your – what you’re —

MS. HARF: We’ve put out – we continued to put out information, Matt. We will continue to do so.


MS. HARF: It is difficult, and we’re happy to put out as much as we can. And we are trying to. And throughout this conflict, I think you’ve seen us display a very high level of credibility in terms of what we’ve said is happening on the ground. The Russians have been the exact opposite. So again, that doesn’t – that’s not the entire ballgame there, but we will attempt to put out more as we can.

QUESTION: Was there —

QUESTION: All right. And then – and just on the artillery that you’ve talked about, the – Russia claims that the Ukrainians are also firing artillery into Russia.

MS. HARF: Well, we obviously take seriously reports of alleged Ukrainian fire into Russia. We don’t – have seen no indications of Ukraine firing back into Russia, so are unable to confirm these reports at this time. Again, the number of Russian troops across – along the border continues to steadily increase. We have seen that in the past few days, but have seen no indications that the Ukrainians have fired back.

QUESTION: Do you have —

MS. HARF: We will continue looking into it.

QUESTION: Do you know if you – if there are people there who can – that you – Americans whether – from whatever agency of government who are – can say with certainty that —

MS. HARF: Well —

QUESTION: — there hasn’t been any firing into Russia?

MS. HARF: We have a variety of ways that we can see what’s going on on the ground – a variety of different kinds of intelligence, not just of the human variety but of a number of different varieties. I’m not going to say which, if any, of those we’re getting information from. Not going to go into that in any way.

QUESTION: All right. But just to put a fine point on it, you are convinced that the Russians are shelling Ukrainian positions, and it’s Russians who are – Russian soldiers who are doing it, not rebels. Or —

MS. HARF: From locations within Russia —

QUESTION: Okay. You don’t know who is pushing the button to fire the —

MS. HARF: Right. From —

QUESTION: But it’s from Russian territory.

MS. HARF: Correct. Correct.

QUESTION: So you are convinced that artillery from Russian territory is hitting Ukrainian —

MS. HARF: Is going into – yes.

QUESTION: Going into Ukraine.

MS. HARF: Aiming at Ukrainian military outposts.

QUESTION: But you are not convinced – you can’t confirm —

MS. HARF: We have seen no indications.

QUESTION: You’ve seen no indication that the opposite is true, that Ukrainians are sending —

MS. HARF: Correct. Correct.

QUESTION: All right.

QUESTION: Is it one incident or two incidents or is this happening —

MS. HARF: I don’t have a number.

QUESTION: All right. I mean, how often – how many times did it happen?

MS. HARF: I don’t have a number for you, Said. I’m happy to see if we can share that.

QUESTION: But isn’t this like – almost like an act of war? Would something like this likely to be brought up at a Security Council forum or something?

MS. HARF: Well, I don’t have anything to predict in terms of where we might discuss this further. But look, we’ve made very clear our concerns with it.

QUESTION: And then in terms of the sanctions that you – yesterday, I can’t remember if this came up in the brief, but the Europeans did —

MS. HARF: I think it came up briefly.

QUESTION: Do you have anything more to say about that?

MS. HARF: I don’t.

QUESTION: Do you have anything more to say about what the U.S. might do now, particularly because you’ve made some pretty serious allegations about an escalation?

MS. HARF: I don’t have anything to predict for you. We’re looking at a variety of options.

QUESTION: All right. And to date, since this crisis began and since Crimea was annexed —

MS. HARF: Seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

QUESTION: Right. You have – the U.S. and Europe, to an extent, have imposed increasing sanctions on Russia. As a result of those or as not a result of those, have you seen any change in the Russian position?

MS. HARF: Well, we’ve certainly seen it have an impact on the Russian economy.

QUESTION: No, apart – I understand that.

MS. HARF: I was getting there.

QUESTION: Have you seen – these were steps taken to change President Putin and the Russian Government’s calculus, correct?

MS. HARF: Well, I’d make two points. The first is we don’t know and can’t say for certain what he would have done if we hadn’t done them, right, if he would’ve taken even more escalatory steps. We did see a number of troops amassing on the border months ago that then were gradually pulled back. So again, it’s – you can’t prove a negative, right? But we haven’t —

QUESTION: Right. But you also can’t prove that he wouldn’t – that it wouldn’t have escalated either.

MS. HARF: That’s right.

QUESTION: So there are two sides to that coin.

MS. HARF: No, no, no. I’m not saying – I’m just saying we can’t assume that he would have done – that he’s done as much as he would have done regardless. But we haven’t seen a de-escalation like we need to in eastern Ukraine or, of course, in Crimea, which we still believe is part of Ukraine. So clearly, it hasn’t changed what President Putin has done in that regard, but we’re going to keep working at it. And sanctions work best the longer they’re in place. So —

QUESTION: But – okay. So the fact that Russia has not only not changed its approach according to you but also escalated its activity as you’ve been saying over the last couple days does not give you pause about whether sanctions are effective?

MS. HARF: No. Not at all. They’ve been incredibly effective against the economy, and again they’re – President Putin has a choice here. He can increasingly become isolated from the international economic system if he wants to continue this escalation, or he can do the opposite.

QUESTION: All right. And then on the crash investigation, do you have anything —

MS. HARF: Let me see what I have on that for you. Hold on one second.

We do support the efforts of the Dutch and the Australians who have offered their support to the Ukrainians to secure the site with a small police force. It’s my understanding I think they’ll be arriving in the coming days. Obviously, we think that more needs to be done. I think it’s a contingent of around 40 Dutch police officers will arrive in the coming days. So obviously, that’s a key concern right now is securing the site, and of course, returning the rest of the remains to their families.

QUESTION: So as far as you’re concerned, at the moment that’s still a work in progress. That has not been done. Okay, and then my last one —

MS. HARF: It’s been – but we do – the separatists are still in control of the area. We’re concerned about looting. So —


MS. HARF: What else? Let’s move on.

Yes, Said.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) journalists. Yesterday – about Graham Phillips, British journalist – yesterday you were saying that Kyiv tells you that they don’t have him, and now Ukrainian news agencies are saying that he was interrogated by the Ukrainian security service, and he was kicked out of the country for three years.

MS. HARF: We don’t have any independent corroboration of that. We’ve seen those reports, but we cannot confirm that. We’re still checking into it.

QUESTION: But do you believe everything that Kyiv tells you?

MS. HARF: No, we independently corroborate things, and I said I couldn’t independently corroborate that.


QUESTION: Can we move onto the Algerian –

MS. HARF: You can, Said.

QUESTION: — airliner. No one has asked about it. Do you have any information on what happened? I mean, could it have been shot out of the sky?

MS. HARF: Well, the cause of the crash has not yet been determined. Preliminary reports indicate that severe and dangerous weather in the region may have played a part. We have – our embassies in Algeria, Mali, and Burkina Faso are in close contact with authorities there, and we’ve offered to assist, but it looks at this point like it may have been weather.

QUESTION: Okay, so more than likely it’s an accident.

MS. HARF: More than likely, yes.

QUESTION: Were there any Americans on the flight?

MS. HARF: No, there were none.

Anything else? Yes, in the back.

QUESTION: Thank you. Assistant Secretary Tom Countryman will be traveling to Korea next week for another round of talks to revise the 123 Agreement, and that the main sticking point in these negotiations has been the U.S. reluctance to allow South Korea to enrich uranium or reprocess spent nuclear fuel. And earlier this month, Dr. Henry Sokolski, who is a renowned nonproliferation expert, told a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that it is very unfair and even reckless for the United States to allow Japan to enrich and reprocess while banning South Korea from doing so. So my question is: Why do you treat these two important allies differently? And what is the difference between Korea and Japan in terms of proliferation risk? Thank you.

MS. HARF: Well, they’re both very close allies, and I don’t want to get ahead of the conversations that Mr. Countryman will be having on the ground. I’m happy to check with him and see what the latest status of the discussions are. I’m not sure I would fully agree with your characterization of what the sticking points are and how they remain. I just want to check that with him. And if we have more details we can share ahead of his trip or during his trip, we’ll get back to you with them.

Yes. Anything else? Everyone, have a very nice weekend. We will see you next week.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:07 p.m.)



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