Ukraine hosts military drills led by US and joined by NATO

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A total of 1,300 troops from 15 nations, either active NATO members or would-be members, have come together for a military exercise in western Ukraine – even as the fragile truce in the east of the country barely holds.

NATO members start supplying weapons to Kiev – Ukrainian Defense Minister

The exercise, code-named “Rapid Trident” has been an annual event since 2006, and has been organized by the Germany-based US European Command (EUCOM). It was initially planned to have this year’s drills in mid-July, but they were postponed because of heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine.

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“This year’s exercise will involve command post exercises, patrolling, counter-IED training and a field training exercise,” the EUCOM Public Affairs Office said in a statement. It adds that “no live fire exercises” have been scheduled for the drills.

The exercise is being conducted near Yavoriv, 60 kilometers from the city of Lvov in north-western Ukraine, at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center (IPSC).

The US earlier pledged to send 200 troops to take part in the exercise.

US prepares military drill in W. Ukraine for mid-September

Earlier in September, Ukrainian and American naval forces held joint maritime drills in the northwestern part of the Black Sea.

The Russian Black Sea fleet simultaneously tested its new-generation Bastion coastal defense system, saying the test was pre-scheduled and was not a response to the US-Ukraine drills in the Black Sea.

Moscow has been particularly sensitive about NATO’s increased activity in Eastern Europe and has been thinking of reviewing its military doctrine due to this new situation.

Russia to adjust military doctrine due to NATO expansion, Ukraine crisis

Eastern Ukraine has meanwhile seen the fragile ceasefire there being put to a serious test on Sunday, when the city of Donetsk witnessed some heavy shelling.

A crew from RT’s video agency Ruptly working on the outskirts of Donetsk witnessed an episode when a family was forced to run for shelter to escape shelling.

A group of OSCE observers also came under fire near Donetsk the same day.

Ukrainian troops and the anti-government forces have blamed each other for the ceasefire violations.

US extends Russia sanctions, targets biggest lender Sberbank & gas giant Gazprom

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The US has introduced new sanctions against Russia’s biggest lenders – Sberbank, Gazprombank and Rosselkhozbank – and added some of the country’s state-owned technology firms and five energy companies, the Treasury said on Friday.

Another Russian lender, Bank of Moscow is also on the blacklist.

In the oil sector, there will be new limitations on exploration facilities for Gazprom, Gazprom Neft, Lukoil, Surgutneftegaz, and Rosneft.

The US also said it would prohibit “transactions in, provision of financing for, or other dealings in new debt of greater than 90 days maturity issued by two additional Russian energy companies, Gazprom Neft and Transneft.”

The US said it was joining European allies, as Russia keeps on with“direct military intervention and blatant efforts to destabilize Ukraine,”Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a press release.

READ MORE: EU publishes Russia sanctions list: Energy, finance, defense targeted

However, the US said it was ready to withdraw some of the sanctions against Russia, if Ukraine and the militia in the east of the country fulfill the Minsk agreement sealed in early September, as ITAR–TASS quotes a US spokesman.

While on paper sanctions have become tougher, in fact little will change for Sberbank, the lender’s head Herman Gref said.

“Given the fact that the [western debt] markets are de facto closed today, the financing for three months, or for even 30 days is no longer possible. Therefore de jure sanctions worsen the situation, but de facto – nothing new has happened,” Gref said.

Sberbank has also started exploring new capital markets, Gref added.

“We are exploring all possibilities. Our objective is to explore everything that can somehow be used in such a situation,” Gref added.

However, he declined to comment on whether Sberbank will place its securities on alternative capital markets this year.

RUSSIA SUCCESSFULLY TESTS NUCLEAR MISSILE

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Missile can travel 5,000 miles

(Reuters) – Russia carried out a successful test of its new Bulava intercontinental nuclear missile on Wednesday and will perform two more test launches in October and November, the head of its naval forces said.

The armed forces have boosted their military training and test drills since the start of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which Russia considers in its traditional sphere of influence.

The 12-meter long Bulava, or mace, has undergone numerous tests, some successful, and can deliver an impact of up to 100 times the atomic blast that devastated Hiroshima in 1945.

Naval Commander-in-Chief Admiral Viktor Chirkov said the test launch had been carried out from the White Sea and that the test missile had hit its target in Russia’s far east.

“In October and November of this year, the naval fleet will carry out two more launches with two rocket cruisers equipped with ballistic missiles,” Interfax quoted Chirkov as saying.

A Bulava missile weighs 36.8 tonnes and can travel 8,000 km (5,000 miles) and hold 6-10 nuclear warheads.

Russian strategic bombers reportedly practice nuclear missile strike against US

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A pair of Russian bomber jets reportedly practiced cruise missile attacks against targets in the United States last week, according to a report published on Monday in the Washington Free Beacon.

Bill Gertz, a writer for the Beacon, reported that two Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers were tracked flying over the Labrador Sea last week in the northern Atlantic Ocean near Iceland, Greenland and Canada as part of a recent training mission.

“Analysis of the flight indicated the aircraft were conducting practice runs to a pre-determined ‘launch box’ — an optimum point for firing nuclear-armed cruise missiles at US targets,” Gertz wrote, citing unnamed defense officials he described as being familiar with intelligence reports.

The aircraft, Gertz added, are outfitted with six AS-15 nuclear-armed cruise missiles, each capable of striking targets as far away as 1,800 miles.

Representatives for the US Northern Command and Northern American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, declined to comment to Gertz ahead of his report, and told RT in an email Monday afternoon that they could not confirm the allegations printed by the Free Beacon. On his part, however, Gertz wrote that neither the US nor Canada responded to the alleged incident because it reportedly occurred outside of the North American Air Defense Identification Zone.

According to Gertz, the reported drill occurred last week at the same time that officials from the US, Canada and other allied partners met in Wales for the largest NATO summit of its kind in two years, where on the agenda, among other topics, was the escalating crisis in eastern Ukraine and potential action that could be undertaken to counter perceived Russian aggression. On the heels of that meeting, both the US and the European Union are expected to impose new sanctions against Moscow.

The latest report comes days after Russia’s own recent decision to revise a 2010 military doctrine to identify the US and NATO members as enemies, which “clearly outline[s] the conditions of a preemptive nuclear strike” against partner countries, Gertz wrote. With regards to the alliance, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said during last week’s summit that at least 4,000 troops from various member states will soon form a “spearhead” regiment that will be “ready to deploy within a few days with air, sea and Special Forces support” in the event that the Ukrainian crisis spread into allied territory.

Gertz has previously reported for the Beacon that no fewer than 16 Russian bombers incurred the airspace of either US or Canada during the month of August, and this week’s article comes days after similar allegations were made abroad: late last month, a Dutch F-16 military jet intercepted and escorted a Russian Tu-95 bomber out of that nation’s airspace, as did the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force during a similar incident.

“Clearly, we at the US Strategic Command do monitor the strategic environment,”Admiral Cecil Haney, commander of the US Strategic Command, told Gertz last month following reports that Russian bombers came within 50 miles of California on the US West Coast. “I will say that the business of them coming close to the United States of America, we take very seriously.”

If new EU sanctions hit energy sector, Russia may close airspace – Medvedev

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Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has warned Russia may shut its air corridors to Western airlines if the next round of European sanctions hit Russian energy companies.

“If there are sanctions related to the energy sector, or further restrictions on Russia’s financial sector, we will have to respond asymmetrically,” Medvedev said in an interview with the Vedomosti newspaper, published on Monday.

EU ministers will gather on Monday to discuss new sanctions against Russia and are rumored to be introduced on Tuesday. The prime minister promised a strong retaliation if the West slaps Russia with more sanctions.

“We could impose transport restrictions,” Medvedev said, adding, “We believe we have friendly relations with our partners, and foreign airlines of friendly countries are permitted to fly over Russia. However, we’ll have to respond to any restrictions imposed on us,” the prime minister said.

After sanctions hit Aeroflot’s low-cost subsidiary Dobrolet in late July, Medvedev discussed with ministers the possibility of limiting, of even completely blocking, European flights to Asia that overfly Russia.

“If Western carriers have to bypass our airspace, this could drive many struggling airlines into bankruptcy. This is not the way to go. We just hope our partners realize this at some point,” he told Vedomosti.

Flying over Russian airspace saves Western airlines headed to Asia at least 4 hours of flight time, which adds up to about $30,000 per flight.

Lufthansa said it could potentially lose more than €1 billion in three months if it does not use Russian airspace. Lufthansa, along with British Airways and Air France, are the largest EU airlines. US airlines currently don’t operate over Siberian airspace.

Many low-cost airlines have decided not to launch new routes to Russia, with the threat of sanctions possibly a factor. Last week Ryanair ditched plans to establish a Dublin-St. Petersburg route, and easyJet, another European-based airline, dropped its plans to develop a London-St. Petersburg service.

Medvedev didn’t specify whether the blocked airspace would also apply to cargo and delivery companies, such as UPS and FedEx.

Oil at stake

EU sanctions, which will reportedly be introduced on Tuesday, will ban Russia’s three main oil companies- Rosneft, Gazprom Neft, and Transneft – from raising long-term (longer than 30 days) debt on European capital markets, according to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

Rosneft – Russia’s largest oil producer – was added to the US sanctions list on July 16 and was put on the EU list on July 29. Russia’s largest independent natural gas producer, Novatek, also was added to the blacklist in July, along with a ban on the export of hi-tech oil equipment needed in Arctic, deep sea, and shale extraction projects to Russia.
Gazprom Neft is the oil subsidiary of Russian gas giant Gazprom.

Transneft is Russia’s state-owned oil pipeline company that exports all of Rosneft’s crude oil, and 56 percent of Russia’s crude exports.

Sanctions likely won’t apply to privately-owned Russian oil groups such as Lukoil and Surgutneftegaz.

The EU will also reportedly follow America’s lead on banning goods that can have dual military and civilian use from Russian companies that also supply the Russian military, the WSJ reported Sunday. On July 16, the US blacklisted several defense sector companies include Almaz-Antey Corporation, the Kalashnikov Concern and Instrument Design Bureau, as well as companies such as Izhmash, Basalt, and Uralvagonzavod.

“Sanctions are always a double-edged sword. Ultimately they end up backfiring and end up hurting those who are first to impose restrictions,” Medvedev said.

The EU has agreed on the new sanctions but said they could be delayed or even cancelled if Russia shows willingness to resolve the conflict in Ukraine.

On Friday Kiev introduced a ceasefire to calm fighting between the Ukrainian army and anti-government forces, but fighting and shelling continued in the country’s east.

NATO stages massive military drills in Latvia

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The exercises in Latvia will be followed by other drills in Germany, Norway, Ukraine, and Poland later this autumn

As seven-day NATO military exercises continue to take place in Latvia, the organization says the drills are aimed at showing its commitment to Baltic member states in the face of an “assertive” Russia.

Exercise Steadfast Javelin 2, which kicked off on September 2, simulates the deployment of NATO soldiers and equipment during a crisis situation. A total of around 2,000 soldiers from nine different countries are taking part in the maneuvers, which will carry on until Monday.

On Friday night, around 500 paratroopers landed at Lielvarde airport, located about 60 km from Latvia’s capital, Riga.

“We want to assure our people that we are able to protect them. Certainly on top of this we send a clear message to everyone who wants to threaten NATO, that it’s not a thing you should do. NATO will always defend and protect its people,” General Hans-Lothar Domrose, commander of the NATO military command in Brunssum, Netherlands, told reporters.

The exercises in Latvia will be followed by other drills in Germany, Norway, Ukraine, and Poland later this autumn.

Steadfast Javelin 2 was reinforced by a NATO summit in Wales, where the bloc officially announced it was creating a new rapid reaction force. The spearhead of any such force would consist of 4,000-5,000 troops who would be able to deploy to any NATO member country within 48 hours.

“It needs to be a relatively light force. It needs to be a force that succeeds, builds upon intelligence and agility, and precision as opposed to weight of military force. It is an agile, precise, intelligence-led rapidly deployable force,” Lieutenant General Ed Davis, NATO deputy land commander, told Reuters.

After 10 years of placing emphasis on military activity in Afghanistan, the alliance is now refocusing on what it refers to as the defense of its members.

The UK has agreed to provide up to 1,000 personnel in the multi-national force, which will be based in Eastern Europe. There are already 1,500 British troops involved in exercises in Baltic countries and an extra 2,000 will be deployed over the next two years.

Baltic states have been seeking backup from NATO, claiming they fear that Russia could use the same rationale as it did in Crimea to justify an attack on them. Large Russian speaking minorities live in Baltic the region – in Latvia, for instance, they account for some 26 percent (over 520,000 people) of the total population.

The announcement was met with dismay in Moscow, which said that NATO was using the crisis in Ukraine to push its military presence closer to Russia’s borders.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the new force would sabotage the fragile peace process in eastern Ukraine.

“Together with the rhetoric at the summit, and the planned military exercises before the end of the year, this will increase tension, destabilization the nascent peace process, and further widen the division in Ukraine,” the ministry’s statement said.

As tensions remain high in Ukraine, a US Navy destroyer, a Canadian fregate and, reportedly, a French frigate have entered the Black Sea. A Spanish warship is reportedly on its way there as well.