- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 7, 2014

Chilly U.S. relations with Russia turned frostier Thursday on several fronts, as Moscow imposed a retaliatory ban on food imports from the West and extended asylum for fugitive spy contractor Edward Snowden, while the White House played up the crippling impact of its sanctions on Russia’s economy.

Russia banned the food imports in retaliation for sanctions over Ukraine, an unexpectedly sweeping move that will cost farmers in the West billions of dollars but will also likely lead to empty shelves in Russian cities. A White House official called the ban “politically motivated” and said the move by Russian President Vladimir Putin would backfire by causing more hardship for ordinary Russians.

As fears rise that Mr. Putin could be preparing to invade eastern Ukraine to rescue pro-Russia separatists, U.S. defense officials also revealed that Russian strategic nuclear bombers have conducted at least 16 incursions into northwestern U.S. air defense zones over the past 10 days. They described the development as an unusually sharp increase in aerial penetrations.

The numerous flights by Tu-95 Bear H bombers prompted the scrambling of U.S. jet fighters on several occasions. During one bomber incursion near Alaska, a Russian intelligence-gathering jet was detected along with the bombers.

“Over the past week, NORAD has visually identified Russian aircraft operating in and around the U.S. air defense identification zones,” said Maj. Beth Smith, spokeswoman for U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

Gen. Smith called the Russian flights “a spike in activity” but sought to play down the threat, stating the flights were assessed as routine training missions and exercises.

SEE ALSO: Obama: ‘Not a new Cold War,’ but new Russia sanctions announced

In a move seemingly intended to further tweak President Obama, Moscow granted a three-year extension of asylum for Mr. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor wanted by the U.S. for leaking details about once-secret surveillance programs, his lawyer said Thursday. Russia had granted Mr. Snowden one year of temporary asylum in 2013, but that allowance expired Aug. 1.

His lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, said the 31-year-old analyst has yet to petition for political asylum, but noted he could apply for full Russian citizenship in five years, Russia’s ITAR-TASS news agency reported.

“He will be able to travel freely within the country and go abroad,” Mr. Kucherena told reporters, “He’ll be able to stay abroad for not longer than three months.”

Meanwhile in Ukraine, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen arrived Thursday in Kiev and discussed with Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk the possibility of Western alliance support for Ukraine’s defense capacity, a government statement said.

Ukrainian forces carried out their first airstrike on the pro-Russia rebel stronghold of Donetsk, as they said they were preparing to liberate the city, although they also reported their highest death toll in weeks in the face of fierce rebel bombardment.

Russia’s ban on Western food imports, announced by a somber Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at a televised Cabinet meeting, covers all imports of meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, milk and milk products from the U.S., the European Union, Australia, Canada and Norway. It will last for one year.

“Until the last moment, we hoped that our foreign colleagues would understand that sanctions lead to a deadlock and no one needs them,” Mr. Medvedev said. “But they didn’t, and the situation now requires us to take retaliatory measures.”

Russia was responding to the latest round of economic sanctions imposed last week by the U.S. and the European Union. The new sanctions targeted broad sectors of the Russian economy, and were in part a reaction to the downing last month of a Malaysia Airlines jet over eastern Ukraine, allegedly by separatists firing missiles supplied by Moscow.

White House officials said the ban on food imports would only worsen Russia’s faltering economy, where inflation was nearly 8 percent in the first half of the year and the stock market has fallen 12 percent.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the sanctions we’ve already imposed have made a weakened Russian economy even weaker,” said Jason Furman, top economic adviser to Mr. Obama. He said Russia’s ban on food imports “will deepen Russia’s international isolation, causing further damage to its own economy.”

The rising tensions brought on the equivalent of international schoolyard taunts. Deploying language that White House officials are certain would vex Mr. Putin’s sense of masculinity, Mr. Furman referred to the U.S. economy as “large” and “strong” while calling Russia’s economy “much smaller, weaker.”

In Moscow, the worsening relationship manifested itself in a derogatory display at the U.S. Embassy, where unidentified Russians projected onto the building a lighted image of Mr. Obama with a birthday party hat atop his head and eating a banana. Also, a banner that showed Mr. Obama in the various poses of the “Three Wise Monkeys” was unfurled and displayed from a building located across the street from the U.S. Embassy. Mr. Obama’s birthday was Monday.

Bill Gertz contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire-service reports.

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