Threatens to retaliate against U.S. sanctions over Ukraine

Russia has threatened to halt U.S. inspections of its strategic missile arsenals in retaliation for American sanctions in a sign of escalating standoff over the Ukraine crisis.

The Russian Defence Ministry is mulling a freeze on exchanges of compliance inspections under the START-3 nuclear arms reductions treaty, a military official told news agencies on Saturday.

“We are ready to take this step in response to the Pentagon’s decision to suspend cooperation between the Russian and U.S. defence establishments,” the unnamed official said.

U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered a visa ban, assets arrest and other sanctions against Russian officials deemed responsible for actions that “undermine democratic processes and institutions in Ukraine.” Washington also cancelled joint military drills with Russia and suspended preparations for a G8 summit in Sochi.

The European Union has drawn up a similar list of penalties.

Russian lawmakers in turn warned they could hit back by adopting a bill to allow assets of Western companies to be confiscated.

“Sanctions ... would inevitably hit the United States like a boomerang,” Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during their telephone conversations late on Friday.

Differences persist

Despite intensive diplomatic efforts Russia and the West appear to be still wide apart over ways to resolve the Ukraine crisis. Russia holds the U.S. responsible for creating the crisis and therefore insists on discussing it with Washington, while the U.S. wants Russia to talk directly with Ukraine’s new leaders.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday said Moscow rejected Western “attempts to present Russia as a party to the conflict” and stated that the crisis in Ukraine had been “created artificially for purely geopolitical reasons.” He added that the current standoff in Ukraine was the result of the Western powers’ failure to get opposition leaders implement the peace accord they signed with ousted President Viktor Yanukovych on February 21.

For his part, Mr. Obama on Friday discussed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel “the need for Russia to agree quickly on the formation of a contact group that will lead to direct dialogue between Ukraine and Russia to de-escalate the situation and restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” according to the White House.

Russia has rejected the idea of such a contact group.

Refused permission

Military observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) were refused permission to enter Crimea on Saturday by armed men. The monitors said shots were fired in the air when they approached a checkpoint set up on a narrow 8-km strip of land linking the peninsula with mainland Ukraine. It was the group’s third attempt to enter Crimea in as many days.

Crimea is set to vote for joining Russia in a referendum set for next Sunday.

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