KYIV — Russia has given Ukraine’s military in Crimea a deadline to surrender or “face storm,” Ukrainian defence sources say, as deputies in the Russian lower house prepared a bill to annex Crimea.
The head of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet Aleksander Vitko set the deadline and threatened an attack “across Crimea,” reported Russian Interfax, quoting the Ukrainian Interior Ministry. The Ukrainian navy was given until 7 p.m. local time Monday to surrender and Ukrainian troops stationed on Crimea’s mainland until 5 a.m. Tuesday.
Interim president Oleksandr Turchynov said Russia gave Ukraine a similar ultimatum two days earlier, with the deadline of 5 a.m. on March 2. “They didn’t start storming the bases on 5 a.m., but the situation is still tense there,” he said.
In Sevastopol, two senior Ukrainian naval commanders — one who only hours earlier had defected to the pro-Russian government in Crimea — competed for the loyalties of their sailors in an extraordinary standoff Monday.
The sailors erupted into a rendition of the national anthem Monday after rejecting a plea from Rear Admiral Denis Berezovsky to defect with him to the Pro-Russian Crimean government.
The naval officers had lined up in the yard of Ukraine’s naval command Monday morning to be addressed by both Berezovsky, who had announced his defection late Sunday, and the newly-appointed navy chief commander, Serhiy Haiduk.
Berezovsky asked the sailors to join him in the newly proclaimed Crimean fleet that he now headed and assured them they would retain their ranks and salary, and would not have breached their oath.
“Viktor Yanukovych is the legitimately elected president of Ukraine,” Berezovsky said. “The seizure of power in Kyiv was orchestrated from abroad.”
Haiduk then read aloud an order from Kyiv removing Berezovsky from his position and told the naval officers that Berezovsky was facing treason charges.
The officers spontaneously broke into the national anthem when Haiduk finished.
“I will stay true to my oath and I am sure this is also true of my fellow officers,” said Timur, a Ukrainian frigate captain who declined to give his last name for fear of threats to his family.
Berezovsky showed no emotion and left the building accompanied by his guards.
Also Monday, deputies in the Russian lower house, the Duma, introduced a bill that would allow for the annexation of Crimea, contingent on a referendum or at the request of its public authorities.
The authors argue that Russia has the right to unilaterally terminate the previously signed international agreements with Ukraine that granted it Crimea.
Ukraine’s prime minister called on the West for political and economic support and said Crimea remained part of his country — but conceded there were “for today, no military options on the table.”
Pro-Russian soldiers seemed to further cement their control over the strategic region — that also houses the Russian Black Sea Fleet — by seizing a ferry terminal in the Ukrainian city of Kerch about 20 kilometres by boat to Russia, intensifying fears that Moscow will send even more troops into the peninsula. It comes as the U.S. and European governments are trying to figure out ways to halt and reverse the Russian incursion.
The soldiers at the terminal refused to identify themselves on Monday, but they spoke Russian and the vehicles transporting them had Russian license plates.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence also reported that Russian fighter jets twice crossed into the southern sector of Ukraine.
On Monday, deputies in the Russian lower house, the Duma, introduced a bill that would allow for the annexation of Crimea, contingent on a referendum or at the request of its public authorities. The authors argue that Russia has the right to unilaterally terminate previously signed international agreements with Ukraine that granted it control of Crimea.
Russia’s Internet monitoring agency has blocked 13 Internet pages linked to the Ukraine protest movement. Roskomnadzor said in a statement published online Monday that it had been ordered by the general prosecutor’s office to shut down the pages on Russia’s leading social media website, VKontakte. The largest pro-demonstration group has more than 500,000 member.
Russia has taken effective control of the Crimean peninsula without firing a shot. Now, the fears in the Ukrainian capital and beyond are that that Russia might seek to expand its control by seizing other parts of eastern Ukraine. Senior Obama administration officials said the U.S. now believes that Russia has complete operational control of Crimea, a pro-Russian area of the country, and has more than 6,000 troops in the region.
The Ukrainian State Border Service said two Russian assault landing ships arrived illegally in the port of Sevastopol, Crimea, on Sunday. It named the ships as the Olenegorskiy Gornyak from the Northern Fleet and the Georgy Pobedonosets of the Baltic Fleet. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol.
So far, Ukraine’s new government and the West have appeared powerless to counter Russia’s tactics.
Britain’s foreign secretary said the U.K. is not discussing military options in its attempts to reverse the Russian incursion into Ukraine but insisted that Moscow must face “significant costs” over its moves in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula that its troops now control.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday rejected accusations that Russia is acting aggressively toward Ukraine and accused the West of putting its own “geopolitical calculations” ahead of the fate of the people in the former Soviet republic.
At a UN human rights meeting in Geneva, Lavrov tried to turn the tables following a hail of Western criticism after President Vladimir Putin secured permission from lawmakers to send the military into Ukraine.
“We call for a responsible approach, to put aside geopolitical calculations, and above all to put the interests of the Ukrainian people first,” he said on a live feed broadcast to Moscow.
While the Kremlin says Putin has not decided to send troops into Ukraine, Western states say Russian forces have already taken control of Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula with a Russian majority.
Without acknowledging that forces moving around Crimea are Russian, Lavrov repeated Russia’s arguments that its actions have been justified by what it says are threats against Russian citizens and Russian-speakers.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk insisted that Crimea remains Ukrainian territory despite the presence of Russian military.
“Any attempt of Russia to grab Crimea will have no success at all. Give us some time,” he said at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who is visiting Kyiv.
“For today, no military options (are) on the table,” he said, adding that what they urgently need is an economic and political support.
“Real support. Tangible support. And we do believe that our Western partners will provide this support,” he said.
Hague said “the world cannot just allow this to happen.” But he ruled out any military action.
“The U.K. is not discussing military options. Our concentration is on diplomatic and economic pressure.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday justified the use of Russian troops in Ukraine as a necessary protection for his country’s citizens living there.
“This is a question of defending our citizens and compatriots, ensuring human rights, especially the right to life,” Lavrov said in Geneva.
Tension between Ukraine and Moscow rose sharply after Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was pushed out by a protest movement among people who wanted closer ties with the European Union. Yanukovych fled to Russia after more than 80 demonstrators were killed near Kyiv’s central square. He says he is still president. Since then, troops that Ukraine says are Russian soldiers have moved into Crimea, patrolling airports, smashing equipment at an airbase and besieging Ukrainian military installations.
Outrage over Russia’s military moves has mounted in world capitals, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry calling on President Vladimir Putin to pull back from “an incredible act of aggression.” Kerry is to travel to Ukraine on Tuesday.
Hague said it was urgent to get Russia and Ukraine “in direct communication with each other.”
Hague said on the BBC that Moscow would face “significant costs” for taking control of Crimea.
“If Russia continues on this course we have to be clear this is not an acceptable way to conduct international relations,” Hague said. “There are things that we can do about it and must do about it.”
Putin has defied calls from the West to pull back his troops, insisting that Russia has a right to protect its interests and those of Russian-speakers in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine. His confidence is matched by the knowledge that Ukraine’s 46 million people have divided loyalties. While much of western Ukraine wants closer ties with the 28-nation European Union, its eastern and southern regions like Crimea look to Russia for support.
Faced with the Russian threat, Ukraine’s new government has moved to consolidate its authority, naming new regional governors in the pro-Russia east, enlisting the support of the country’s wealthy businessmen and dismissing the head of the country’s navy after he declared allegiance to the pro-Russian government in Crimea.
NATO held an emergency meeting in Brussels and the U.S., France and Britain debated the possibility of boycotting the next Group of Eight economic summit, to be held in June in Sochi, the host of Russia’s successful Winter Olympics. On Sunday evening, the White House issued a joint statement on behalf of the Group of Seven saying they are suspending participation in the planning for the upcoming summit because Russia’s advances in the Ukraine violate the “principles and values” on which the G-7 and G-8 operate.
Russia has long wanted to reclaim the lush Crimean Peninsula, part of its territory until 1954. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet pays Ukraine millions annually to be stationed at the Crimean port of Sevastopol and nearly 60 per cent of Crimea’s residents identify themselves as Russian.
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