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Ukraine mobilizes as Merkel warns Russia of possible long-term damage

KIEV -- Ukraine moved Thursday to mobilize a volunteer force to ward off Russia's expansionist threat as Berlin warned Moscow of long-term damage to its economy and EU relations over the Crimea crisis.

The Verkhovna Rada parliament unanimously backed the creation of a new force of up to 60,000 volunteers who could keep Russian troops from advancing beyond the Crimean peninsula they seized at the start of the month.

The dramatic decision to bolster Ukraine's defenses with people outside the army came shortly after U.S. President Barack Obama threw his full weight behind Ukraine's new pro-European leaders in their Cold War-style standoff with the Kremlin.

National Security and Defense Council chief Andriy Parubiy said the new National Guard would “ensure state security, defend the borders, and eliminate terrorist groups” — a term many in Kiev use to call the well-armed militias who patrol Crimea alongside Russian troops.

Ukraine's conventional army of 130,000 soldiers — half of them conscripts with ageing equipment — is dwarfed by an 845,000-strong Russian force that has the backup of nuclear weapons.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel — a fluent Russian speaker whose upbringing in Communist East Germany shaped both her cautious approach to Moscow and understanding of the importance of keeping relations with the Kremlin on track — delivered her most ominous warning to date in an appearance before the German parliament.

'Massively damage Russia'

“If Russia continues its course of the last weeks, it would not only be a catastrophe for Ukraine,” she told the chamber.

“It would not only change the relationship of the European Union as a whole to Russia. No, it would also, and I am firmly convinced of this, massively damage Russia both economically and politically.”

Merkel accused Russia of using the “failed” expansionist tactics of the previous two centuries.

Russia's parliament is still due to consider legislation next week simplifying the process for the annexation of Crimea — a strong possibility after the Black Sea region holds a hotly disputed referendum on Sunday on switching over to Kremlin rule.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said meanwhile that it had postponed the process for the Russian Federation to join its 34-member organization.

The European Union will debate travel bans and asset freezes on Monday against Russian officials held responsible for threatening Ukraine's territorial integrity.

Brussels is also expected next week to offer Ukraine a chance to sign an historic EU trade pact whose abrupt November rejection in favor of closer ties with Russia sparked the initial wave of Kiev unrest.

'We will stand with Ukraine'

The White House has been moving on punitive measures faster than its European allies — their financial and energy sectors intertwined tightly with Russia — and has already approved visa restrictions and financial penalties on Moscow officials.

But Obama told Ukraine's visiting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Wednesday that Washington was willing to move much further if Putin failed to soften his stance immediately.

“There's another path available and we hope President Putin is willing to seize that path,” Obama told reporters after awarding Yatsenyuk — whose legitimacy Putin rejects — the honor of a government leader by meeting him in the Oval Office.

“But if he does not, I'm very confident that the international community will stand firmly behind the Ukrainian government.”

And Obama made plain where he stood on Russian troop movements in Crimea that began at the start of the month.

“We have been very clear that we consider the Russian incursion into Crimea outside of its bases to be a violation of international law,” Obama stressed.

“And we have been very firm in saying that we will stand with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in ensuring that territorial integrity and sovereignty is maintained.”

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U.S. President Barack Obama, right, talks with Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, left, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, March 12.

(AP)

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