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Ukraine floats plan for more autonomy as NATO warns about Russian troops

Move is an attempt to undercut Russian hopes for federalized Ukraine; separately, NASA cuts cooperation with Russia

Crisis-hit Ukraine took a first step Wednesday toward granting more autonomy to its pro-Russian eastern regions as part of an effort – backed by Western diplomats – aimed at undercutting Moscow’s assertion that Russia is justified in violating Ukrainian sovereignty in order to protect ethnic Russians who are allegedly under threat.

The move, which would fall well short of the type of political federation that Russia has reportedly proposed for Ukraine, comes as tens of thousands of Russian troops remain massed along its border and a day after Moscow raised the price on natural gas shipments to Kiev, a move it threated to repeat Wednesday.

But Ukraine's new government — having won both vital financial backing from the International Monetary Fund  last week and moral support from a meeting of NATO foreign ministers on Tuesday — appeared ready to resist Moscow’s attempts to dislodge the regions in the east of the country that have sizable pro-Russian constituencies.

See more Al Jazeera America coverage of Ukraine's crisis

In announcing its new plan, the Ukrainian government said it would like to eliminate the current practice under which local governors are appointed by the president, and then move toward a system with local elections. But Ukraine said nothing about granting regions the right to set their own trade policies or establish special relations with foreign states, as Russia desires.

"The main idea behind the concept is to decentralize power in the country and substantially broaden the authority of local communities," the government said in a statement published on its website.

Moscow wants major constitutional reforms in Ukraine in the wake of the February overthrow of the pro-Russian government of former President Viktor Yanukovich, whose rejection of closer economic trade ties with Europe launched months of unrest that morphed into a broader anti-government movement.

Russia would like to see Ukraine transformed into a federation that allows eastern regions in the nation of 46 million to adopt Russian as a second state language, and to overrule some decisions it dislikes made in Kiev.

Moscow has argued that the changes are needed because ethnic Russians have comes under increasing attack from ultranationalist forces that helped the new leaders overthrow Yanukovich. But such accusations from Russia have been largely uncorroborated, and Ukrainian officials have said that they are a fiction.

But the United States and its EU allies fear that Russia – having already annexed Crimea last month – is using the federation idea as an excuse to further splinter Ukraine by effectively granting Moscow veto powers over Kiev's regional policies.

U.S. officials have instead urged Ukraine's new leaders to introduce more targeted reforms that undercut Russian President Vladimir Putin's arguments for sending troops into the pro-Russian regions of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government's statement is closely in line with U.S. wishes in stressing that a system under which regional governors are appointed by local legislatures would be more efficient.

Earlier Wednesday, in his first interview since fleeing the country in February, Yanukovich called Russia's annexation of Crimea tragic and said he hoped the Black Sea peninsula could come back under Ukraine's control someday.

But he stopped short of placing any blame on Putin.

"Crimea is a tragedy, a major tragedy," Yanukovich said during an interview with The Associated Press and Russia's NTV television, insisting Russia's takeover of Crimea would not have happened if he had stayed in power.

No quiet on the Eastern front

While Ukraine announced the new plan for autonomy, and as Western and Russian diplomats are still struggling to reach a diplomatic solution to the unresolved crisis, Moscow has kept its forces massed on Ukraine's eastern border.

According to NATO on Wednesday, the size of the Russian force would allow Moscow to satisfy any attempt to carry out an "incursion" into Ukraine in a matter of days.

Calling the situation "incredibly concerning,” NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, said NATO had spotted signs of movement by a very small part of the Russian force overnight but had no indication that this was part of a withdrawal to barracks.

NATO military chiefs are concerned that the Russian force on the Ukrainian border, which they estimate stands at 40,000 soldiers, could pose a threat to eastern and southern Ukraine.

"This is a very large and very capable and very ready force," Breedlove said in an interview with Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.

The Russian force has aircraft and helicopter support as well as field hospitals and electronic warfare capabilities – "the entire suite that would be required to successfully have an incursion into Ukraine, should the decision be made," Breedlove said.

"We think it is ready to go and we think it could accomplish its objectives in between three and five days if directed to make the actions."

Russia has said it has no intention of invading its neighbor, although since the toppling of Yanukovich it has asserted a right to intervene to protect ethnic Russians if necessary.

Further Russian intervention in Ukraine would be an "historic mistake" that would deepen Moscow's international isolation, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Wednesday.

NASA cuts Russia cooperation

In another sign of the deteriorating Russian-U.S. relationship on Wednesday, NASA announced that it was suspending most joint activities with its counterparts in Moscow.

“Given Russia's ongoing violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, until further notice, the U.S. Government has determined that all NASA contacts with Russian Government representatives are suspended, unless the activity has been specifically excepted,” read an internal NASA memo announcing move Wednesday.

Activities excepted from the suspension of NASA’s engagement with the Russian government include the multinational efforts at the International Space Station.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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