Russia’s envoy to the NATO alliance said on Friday that Moscow will bolster military forces in occupied Ukraine, and is not banned from deploying nuclear arms in Crimea.
"Everything that we do in Crimea fully complies with all obligations of the Russian Federation under international treaties. We do not violate anything, there are no prohibitions on us deploying certain weapons systems," said Alexander Grushko, the envoy, when asked if nuclear arms would be placed in Crimea.
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Grushko also declined to say whether nuclear arms currently are deployed inside the Ukrainian territory forcibly annexed by Russia in March 2014. He made the remarks in a video press conference from Moscow with reporters in Brussels, where NATO headquarters is located.
European Command spokesman Capt. Greg Hicks said Grushko’s comments were "rhetoric" and a "diatribe" that would not alter the NATO position on the issue.
"Russia has illegally occupied Crimea and attempted to annex sovereign Ukraine territory, and any attempt to deploy nuclear weapons to Crimea would be destabilizing," he said.
A State Department official agreed. Additionally, the official said stationing nuclear arms in Crimea would "violate Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity in breach of [Russia’s] obligations under the U.N. Charter, and to be inconsistent with Russia's commitments under the Helsinki Final Act and the Budapest Memorandum."
Congressional concerns about deployments of nuclear weapons in Crimea are outlined in the current defense authorization bill passed by the House this week. The bill would require the secretary of defense to notify Congress within seven days of Russia’s deployment of nuclear arms in Ukrainian territory and to outline a U.S. strategy in response.
Russian military forces have some 100 units and organizations currently in Crimea, according to state-controlled Russian press reports, described by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu as "self-sufficient" forces.
The Russian military action against Crimea violates Moscow’s commitment under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, under which Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for security assurances that its territory would not be threatened.
Russian supported rebel action in eastern Ukraine has pushed steadily toward the point where a land bridge between Russian territory and the Crimean peninsula could soon be created, so that Russian forces on the peninsula could be more easily re-supplied.
The military buildup in occupied Crimea is being carried out in response to NATO’s build up in eastern Europe, specifically Poland, and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, where NATO troops are being deployed, Grushko said.
The three nations fear they will be the next target of Russian expansionism under President Vladimir Putin, who is gradually restoring Moscow’s control over several areas that were once part of the Soviet Union.
Grushko called the increased NATO military presence near Russia "unacceptable."
"Naturally, we will be partially increasing our [military] presence in Crimea, bearing in mind that the NATO countries have recently increased their activities near our national borders," Grushko said.
The comments are the second recent official statement of Russian intentions to deploy nuclear weapons in Crimea.
In March, Mikhail Ulyanov, a Foreign Ministry official, said he did not know if Russia has deployed nuclear arms and was unaware of plans to do so, but stated, "in principle Russia can do this."
"Naturally Russia has the right to put nuclear weapons in any region on its territory if it deems it necessary. We hold that we have such a right, though Kiev has a different opinion on this matter," Ulyanov said, according to the state-run RIA Novosti news agency.
Grushko’s comments followed a NATO meeting in Turkey Thursday where the Baltic states’ representatives asked the alliance to permanently station forces in the region to counter threats from Russia.
The alliance is currently engaged in a major military exercise involving some 13,000 troops in Estonia. It also is conducting a large-scale anti-submarine warfare exercise in the North Sea, where recent incursions of Russian submarines have been detected in recent months.
So far, NATO support for Eastern European NATO members has been limited to temporary deployments, exercises, and increased surveillance flights.
The Latvian Defense Ministry on Thursday said a formal request for the permanent basing of troops would be sent next week.
"An Allied presence is an essential prerequisite for Latvia’s security in a situation where Russia does not change its policies regarding the Ukraine conflict and, at the same time, strongly demonstrates its military presence and potential in the Baltic Sea region," the ministry said in a statement.
The Free Beacon reported in October that Russia planned to move tactical nuclear weapons into Crimea, according to members of Congress.
Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon strategic affairs policymaker, said the Russians have announced a number of military reinforcements in Crimea, including temporary deployments of nuclear capable Iskander-M missiles and Backfire bombers.
Moscow also announced that two new Varshavianka-class submarines will be deployed by the end of 2015, and one Russian general mentioned they would have nuclear torpedoes, he said.
"This is the most significant of the reports," Schneider said of Grushko’s comments. "To me this suggests that tactical nuclear weapons are there or are going in. They do not have enough manpower for ‘just in case.’"
Senate Armed Services Committee member James Inhofe (R., Okla.) has said Putin announced in August that he had approved deploying nuclear-capable Iskander-M short-range missiles and Tu-22 nuclear-capable bombers to Crimea, located on the Black Sea.
"The stationing of new nuclear forces on the Crimean peninsula, Ukrainian territory Russia annexed in March, is both a new and menacing threat to the security of Europe and also a clear message from Putin that he intends to continue to violate the territorial integrity of his neighbors," Inhofe stated.
Three senior House Republican leaders then wrote to President Obama warning that Moscow will deploy nuclear missiles and bombers armed with long-range air launched cruise missiles in Crimea.
The Republicans included then-House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Ala.), chairman of the subcommittee on strategic forces, and Rep. Michael Turner (R., Ohio), chairman of the subcommittee on tactical air and land forces.
The lawmakers said nuclear deployments to Crimea are "clear, and perhaps irrevocable tearing" of a 1997 agreement between NATO and Russia that allowed Russia to keep a military presence in the alliance.
There have also been U.S. intelligence reports indicating Russia plans to deploy nuclear arms in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, where Iskander short-range missiles are said to be deployed.
Grushko, meanwhile, also called on the United States to withdraw its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, specifically from Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey.
"I am talking about the practice of the so-called nuclear missions of the NATO states," he said. "It’s not a new issue, it emerged before the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was signed in 1968."
"It is strictly forbidden under the NPT. The first article of the treaty prohibits nuclear countries to convey any nuclear arms or other nuclear explosive devices to anyone directly or indirectly," he added.
"The U.S. must pull out these nuclear bombs to its territory," Grushko said. "It would be a serious contribution to strategic stability and security in Europe."
The United States is believed to have around 200 nuclear weapons in Europe. Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal is at least 2,000 weapons.