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Putin Orders Border Troop Withdrawal, Again; Mladic Defense Begins

Plus, bison come back to Romania’s mountains and NATO settles in in Uzbekistan.

by S. Adam Cardais, Ioana Caloianu, and Rebecca Johnson 20 May 2014

1. For third time, Putin orders troops back from Ukrainian border

 

Analysts are optimistic that Russian troops stationed near the Ukrainian border might actually withdraw after President Vladimir Putin again ordered them back to base 19 May, the Guardian reports.

 

This is the Kremlin's third such announcement since the troop buildup began in March amid the political standoff over Ukraine. The previous two orders came to nothing and, while NATO said 19 May that the troops hadn't yet budged, some Russian defense experts are nevertheless optimistic.

 

They told the Guardian the forces would need at least a day to begin moving and that a 19 May meeting between Putin and the national security council suggested the withdrawal order, published on the Kremlin's website, was the real deal. It said troops in three border regions would return to base following “completion of routine springtime training exercises.”

 

Defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said Putin had likely decided the risks of invading eastern Ukraine outweighed the rewards, partly because Ukraine's interim government is already shaky.

 

"You had to make a decision to go or not go, and threats of Western sanctions were a significant factor," he said, the Guardian reports.

 

Reuters reports that Ukrainian border guards had noticed a decrease in Russian military activity near the border, though no signs of a withdrawal. NATO, meanwhile, wasn't holding its breath.

 

“Now I think it's the third Putin statement on withdrawal of Russian troops, but so far we haven't seen any withdrawal at all,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said 19 May, according to Reuters. “I strongly regret that, because a withdrawal of Russian troops would be a first important contribution to de-escalating the crisis.”

 

Kyiv and its Western allies fear that the tens of thousands of Russian troops at the border could invade to support pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine who have declared independence. Tensions are particularly high as Ukraine heads to presidential elections 25 May that Western governments hope could help resolve the crisis in Ukraine.

 

2. Mladic defense witness denies targeting civilians

 

Ratko Mladic
The defense of former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic began 19 May at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal at The Hague, Radio Free Europe reports.

 

 

Mladic lawyer Miodrag Stojanovic opened with a summary of written testimony by Mile Sladoje, a Serb army officer who said all Bosnian Serb military actions during the 1992-1995 Bosnian conflict were defensive in nature. Sladoje also testified that he neither received nor gave orders to attack civilians during the siege of Sarajevo.

 

“I know nobody gave orders to shoot civilians,” the BBC reports Sladoje as testifying, referring to the sniping campaign launched during the siege.

 

Arrested in 2011 after 15 years at large, Mladic faces 11 counts of genocide and war crimes, including allegations that he masterminded the siege of Sarajevo and the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica. Mladic, who maintains innocence, saluted Sladoje as he entered the court, the Associated Press reports.

 

In his testimony, Sladoje also suggested that all of Sarajevo was effectively the front line in the conflict, according to the AP. “There was no part of the city that did not have a military installation or facility.”

 

Last month, judges at the Hague tribunal rejected Mladic's request to throw out the charges against him, citing “sufficient evidence” to proceed.

 

3. Bison reintroduced into Romania’s Carpathians

 

Seventeen bison have been reintroduced to the mountains of western Romania more than 250 years after they went extinct there, National Geographic reports.

 

As part of a larger effort to re-establish the herds that once roamed the continent, the animals were brought 17 May to a 15-hectare (37-acre) enclosure adjacent to a 160-hectare “rewilding” zone, where they will be transferred before eventually being released into the wild.

 

Environmental groups WWF and Rewilding Europe brought bison from Germany, Italy, Sweden, and Switzerland. Conservationists hope the animals will learn to survive and become a herd of around 500, Balkan Insight reports.

 

From living only in zoos in the early part of the 20th century, European bison number more than 3,000 in the wild now. Photo by Neil McIntosh/flickr.

 

The European bison were once found in parts of Europe and the Caucasus but were pushed out by agriculture, logging, hunting, and poaching, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. By the end of the 19th century, only two wild populations remained, which were both gone by 1927. After that, the animals lived only in zoos.

 

Breeding and reintroduction efforts have brought their numbers in the wild to more than 3,000, according to National Geographic, although deforestation and hunting remain threats to Europe’s largest herbivore.

 

Rewilding Europe has made the vast wild spaces of the Carpathians a priority area for restoring the population.

 

4. NATO opens office in Uzbekistan

 

NATO has opened an office in Uzbekistan at a time of significant tension between Russia and the West over influence in the former Soviet Union, EurasiaNet.org reports.

 

According to Uzbekistan’s official news agency, cited by EurasiaNet.org, among other things the office will support alliance operations and work with “partners in the region” on defense planning and scientific and environmental issues.

 

As the war in Afghanistan winds down, James Appathurai, NATO's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, said at the opening ceremony, “The most important part of our cooperation remains the transit of cargo through Uzbekistan. And we are grateful to Uzbekistan for that.”

 

In an interview with Radio Free Europe, Appathurai tamped down any talk of NATO presenting a challenge to Russia in its back yard.

 

“We are not here to compete with anyone or to pressure anyone to make any sort of changes to their political orientation,” he said.

 

With its abysmal human rights practices, Uzbekistan has been a difficult ally for the West, but the country has also held Russia at arm’s length. In 2012, it pulled out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and, although expressing a “positive attitude” toward the Russia-led Customs Union, it has taken no steps to join the trading bloc. 

 

An analyst in Kazakhstan predicted Moscow would “react strenuously to the news” of the new NATO office in Uzbekistan, according to EurasiaNet.org.

 

5. Sir Winton to receive highest Czech honor

 

The Czech Republic is bestowing its highest state honor on Sir Nicholas Winton, a British philanthropist who rescued 669 mostly Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia before World War II, The Wall Street Journal reports.

 

Czech President Milos Zeman announced the award for the Order of the White Lion on 19 May, Winton's 105th birthday. Winton will be officially honored at a 28 October ceremony in Prague.

 

In 1939, the 30-year-old Winton organized the so-called kindertransport from Prague through Germany and Holland to the UK, where the children were adopted, Radio Prague reports. Winton kept largely quiet about his humanitarianism, but in 1988 his wife found detailed notebooks with lists of the children saved. The same year, the BBC produced a segment honoring Winton that has one of the most stunning endings in television history.

 

Radio Prague points out that Winton recently told CBS News' 60 Minutes that he felt bound to act after learning of the plight of Europe's Jews. Winton cited his motto, “If it's not impossible, there must be a way of doing it.”

 

Winton is the son of German-Jewish parents who moved to England in 1907. The British press called him the “British Schindler” after Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved more than 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust. Winton was knighted in 2002.

 

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Rebecca Johnson is a TOL editorial intern.
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