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Eastern Europe expresses concern about Russian aggression

March 11, 2014 at 6:12 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: The crisis in the Ukraine, which has pitted Europe and the U.S. against a re-expanding Russia, entered a new phase today.

War games began in Poland today, as U.S. and Polish forces performed joint air and naval exercises. They were long-planned, but have now become part of the U.S. response to Russia’s seizing much of Crimea, a Ukrainian region where ethnic Russians predominate.

Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested last week he could intervene elsewhere as well.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through interpreter): If we see that lawlessness starting in eastern regions too, if people ask us for help, we reserve the right to use all options at our disposal to protect those citizens.

GWEN IFILL: On Friday’s NewsHour, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey said such action would be dangerous.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: If Russia is allowed to do this, which is to say move into a sovereign country under the guise of protecting ethnic Russians in — in Ukraine, it exposes Eastern Europe to some significant risk, because there are ethnic enclaves all over Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

GWEN IFILL: Indeed, much of Eastern Ukraine does have sizable Russian-speaking populations.

And other nations in the region, including Moldova, Belarus, and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, are also home to large numbers of ethnic Russians. This isn’t the first time Moscow has moved to annex regions beyond its borders. During the Five Days War in 2008, Russia effectively gained control over portions of neighboring Georgia.

Estonia’s foreign minister said today the entire continent should be concerned.

URMAS PAET, Foreign Minister, Estonia (through interpreter): Russian aggression changes the situation for the whole of Europe. It influences Europe’s security. And the fact that Russia uses its power to protect Russians living abroad affects all European countries, as Russians live all over Europe.

GWEN IFILL: In the face of that prospect, the European Union is talking sanctions. The U.S. has already imposed some penalties and travel bans.

And starting Thursday, a dozen more American F-16 fighter jets will arrive in Poland. F-15s are headed to Lithuania, and NATO is stepping up reconnaissance flights over Poland and Romania.