Russia tightens grip on Crimea despite Western warnings

  

Germany's Angela Merkel delivered a rebuke to President Vladimir Putin yesterday (9 March), stating that a Moscow-backed referendum on Crimea joining Russia was illegal, and violated Ukraine's constitution.

Putin defended breakaway moves by pro-Russian leaders in Crimea, where Russian forces tightened their grip on the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula by seizing another border post and a military airfield.

As thousands staged rival rallies in Crimea, street violence flared in Sevastopol, when pro-Russian activists and Cossacks attacked a group of Ukrainians.

Russian forces' seizure of the region has been bloodless, but tensions are mounting, following the decision by pro-Russian groups there to make Crimea part of Russia.

In the latest armed action, pro-Russian forces wearing military uniforms bearing no designated markings sealed off a military airport in Crimea near the village of Saki, a Ukrainian Defence Ministry spokesman on the peninsula said.

The operation to seize Crimea began within days of Ukraine's pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich's flight from the country last month. Yanukovich was toppled after three months of demonstrations against a decision to spurn a free trade deal with the European Union for closer ties with Russia.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk will hold talks with President Barack Obama in Washington on Wednesday on how to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis, the White House said.

One of Obama's top national security officials said the United States would not recognise the annexation of Crimea by Russia if residents vote to leave Ukraine in a referendum next week.

"We won't recognise it, nor will most of the world," deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken said.

International law

Juncker on Ukraine: 'the old European debate between peace and war is not behind us'

Putin declared last week that Russia had the right to invade Ukraine to protect Russian citizens, and his parliament has voted to change the law to make it easier to annex territory inhabited by Russian speakers.

Speaking by telephone to Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, Putin said steps taken by authorities in Crimea were "based on international law and aimed at guaranteeing the legitimate interests of the peninsula's population," the Kremlin said.

A German government statement, however, said the referendum was illegal: "Holding it violates the Ukrainian constitution and international law."

Merkel also regretted the lack of progress on forming an "international contact group" to seek a political solution to the Ukraine crisis and said this should be done urgently.

On Thursday, Merkel said if a contact group was not formed coming days, and no progress was made in negotiations with Russia, the European Union could hit Russia with sanctions such as travel restrictions and asset freezes.

Merkel, whose country is heavily dependent on Russia oil and gas, has so far been more cautious than other nations, is urging Western partners to give Putin more time before punishing Moscow with tough economic sanctions.

This stance reflects German fears of the geopolitical consequences of an isolated Russia as much as it does concern about its business interests and energy ties.

In a round of telephone diplomacy on Sunday, the German chancellor also spoke with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, agreeing that Ukraine's sovereignty must be preserved.

Border post

Russians seized a Ukrainian border outpost in western Crimea early this morning, trapping an estimated 15 personnel inside, a border guard official reported.

The spokesman, Oleh Slobodyan, said Russian forces now controlled 11 border guard posts across Crimea, a former Russian territory that is home to Russia's Black Sea fleet and has an ethnic Russian majority.

At a Ukrainian military base at Yevpatoriya on the coast of western Crimea, there were reports that the Russian forces had issued an ultimatum to surrender or be stormed. It passed, as has happened on other occasions, at bases across Crimea.

"They are putting psychological pressure on us. It is not the first ultimatum," Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Lomaka told Reuters by telephone, saying the Russian forces would not allow him out of the base.

"We have no fight with them, but we are not going to hand over our weapons to soldiers of the Russian Federation."

Dimtry Bolbanchyov, 50, who works as a cook on commercial boats, bicycles 13 kilometres across town to bring the besieged Ukrainians soldiers food.

"I am doing what I can to boost their morale. Ukraine has become so weak, we can only hope for help from outside," he said.

In Sevastopol, several hundred people held a meeting demanding that Crimea become part of Russia, chanting: "Moscow is our capital."

Across town, at a monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, violence flared at a meeting to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth, when pro-Russian activists and Cossacks attacked a small group of Ukrainians guarding the event and the police had to intervene.

Footage from the event showed a group of men violently kicking one of the Ukrainians as he lay on the ground and a Cossack repeatedly hit him with a long black leather whip.

In Simferopol, Crimea's main city, pro- and anti-Russian groups held rival rallies.

Several hundred opponents of Russian-backed plans for Crimea to secede gathered, carrying blue and yellow balloons the colour of the Ukrainian flag. The crowd sang the national anthem, twice, and an Orthodox Priest led prayers and a hymn.

Vladimir Kirichenko, 58, an engineer, opposed the regional parliament's plans for a vote this month on Crimea joining Russia. "I don't call this a referendum. It asks two practically identical questions: Are you for the secession of Ukraine or are you for the secession of Ukraine? So why would I go and vote?"

Soviet songs

Several thousand Russian supporters gathered in Lenin Square, clapping along to nostalgic Soviet era songs.

Alexander Liganov, 25 and jobless, said: "We have always been Russian, not Ukrainian. We support Putin."

At a rally in the eastern city of Donetsk, home to many Russian speakers, presidential candidate Vitaly Klitschko, a former boxing champion, said Ukraine should not be allowed to split apart amid bloodshed.

"The main task is to preserve the stability and independence of our country," he said.

The worst face-off with Moscow since the Cold War has left the West scrambling for a response, especially since the region's pro-Russia leadership declared Crimea part of Russia last week and announced a 16 March referendum to confirm it.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to Russia's foreign minister for the fourth day in a row, told Sergei Lavrov on Saturday that Russia should exercise restraint.

A spokeswoman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said military monitors from the pan-Europe watchdog had on Saturday been prevented for the third time in as many days from entering Crimea.

Moscow denies that the Russian-speaking troops in Crimea are under its command, an assertion Washington dismisses as "Putin's fiction". Although they wear no insignia, the troops drive vehicles with Russian military plates.

A Reuters reporting team filmed a convoy of hundreds of Russian troops in about 50 trucks, accompanied by armoured vehicles and ambulances, which pulled into a military base north of Simferopol in broad daylight on Saturday.

Ukrainian troops are performing training exercises in their bases but there are no plans to send them to Crimea, Interfax news agency quoted acting Defence Minister Ihor Tenyukh as saying. Ukraine's military, with 130,000 troops, would be no match for Russia's. So far Kyiv has held back from any action that might provoke a response.

Positions: 

The United States will not recognise the annexation of Crimea by Russia if residents of the region vote to leave Ukraine in a referendum next week, US national security official Tony Blinken said on Sunday.

"First, if there is an annexation of Crimea, a referendum that moves Crimea from Ukraine to Russia, we won't recognize it, nor will most of the world," Blinken said. He added: "Second, the pressure that we've already exerted in coordination with our partners and allies will go up. The president made it very clear in announcing our sanctions, as did the Europeans the other day, that this is the first step and we've put in place a very flexible and very tough mechanism to increase the pressure, to increase the sanctions."

Representative Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, questioned the effectiveness of sanctions against Russia.

Rogers said on ABC's "This Week" program that Germany's economic and energy ties to Moscow could make its own economy vulnerable if sanctions bite deeply on Russia.

"You've got some problems with sanctions and how that works out and how they (Germany) can go forward without screwing up their own economy," he said.

Rogers said Putin had shown an "expansionist attitude" and that the United States should not underestimate "the kinds of things that he will do that he thinks is in Russia's best interests."

Representative Paul Ryan, who was the Republican Party nominee for Vice President in the 212 election, suggested targeting the oligarchs who back Putin and boosting U.S. natural gas exports as a way of cutting into a crucial Russian business in Europe.

German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel told ARD that during his meeting with Putin in Moscow last week, the Russian president had not said no to forming an "international contact group", which Germany is calling for, but he did not agree to it either.

"My impression is that the Russians are not yet aware that they hold the responsibility in their hands for the whole of Europe falling back into the time of the Cold War," he said.

Former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, addressing thousands of people at the Kyiv's Maidan square, accused Russia on Sunday of being complicit in police violence against protesters.

Khodorkovsky, who was jailed for a decade under Putin, told the crowd the Kremlin was lying to its own people by portraying the protesters as "neo-fascists" bent on violence.

"Russian propaganda lies, as always. There are no fascists or Nazis here, no more than on the streets on Moscow or St Petersburg," he said. "These are wonderful people who stood up for their freedom."

Chinese President Xi Jinping called for all parties to remain calm and urged a political solution to the crisis, during telephone calls with U.S. President Barack Obama and Merkel.

"The situation in Ukraine is extremely complex, and what is most urgent is for all sides to remain calm and exercise restraint to avoid an escalation in tensions," China's foreign ministry on Monday cited Xi as telling Obama. "Political and diplomatic routes must be used to resolve the crisis," Xi added.

Timeline: 
  • 12 March: Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk to visit the USA
  • 16 March: The pro-Russian authorities of Crimea to hold referendum
External links: 
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Comments

Vincente's picture

Talking about propaganda, this article is just as deplorable as how it depicts the Russian press...

I am horrified by what the EU is becoming.

Why not recognise what the Crimean people want? Why not mention the fact that the Kiev snipers might have been extremists from the Opposition? Why instead condemn and freeze assets of Yanukovitch without a trial? Why not wait for elections before deciding on Ukraine's future?

Many people from countries inside the EU, and even people who work for the EU are becoming increasingly frustrated by these decisions who don't respect the European's will. When will a European country actually say something form the USA?

Vincente's picture

When will a European country actually say something form the USA?

Vincente's picture

When will a European country actually say something different form the USA?

(God, finally got it right!)

Anna's picture

Arayik Sargsyan:«Russian Spring" came to the Crimea: war or peace .
Arayik Sargsyan , Academician, President of the Academy of Geopolitics , Honorary Consul of Macedonia to Armenia.
May 22, 1949 James Forrestal, the first (by then former) U.S. Secretary of Defense, while in a psychiatric hospital, committed suicide by jumping from the window. During the illness, according to the common story, he raved, repeating the words: "The Russians are coming".
March 16, 2014 a referendum in the Crimea on the status of an autonomous republic whose citizens express their opinion on whether the subject of the Russian Federation Crimea or remain part of Ukraine with broad powers. This will be a referendum for the citizens of Ukraine litmus test of the new government, which has already been set in terms of chess zughzwang , where any statement in Kiev only worsen his situation . It is clear that the new government of the victorious revolution fear the collapse of the country to pieces, some of which will go immediately under the protectorate of the EU , Russia and others . But why Ukraine should break up into its constituent parts , their differing ideological code , why can not live in peace and harmony ? First of all , in its different mentality influenced by Western countries and Russia , as well as with respect to the property. The main mistake of the new authorities of Kiev was the fact that they did not even try to change the status quo, in which all Ukraine is divided into zones of influence of oligarchs. Removing from the political arena Yanukovych , who was the mouthpiece and the Executive power of the oligarchs , the victorious revolution did not even try to change the current situation in the economy when the country led to the collapse of not only Yanukovych and his thieving nukes’ , but also representatives of greedy capitalism. Leaving things as they are , the leaders betrayed Maidan " heavenly hundred" betrayed the Ukrainian people and trampled on the country's future . Therefore, separation of the Crimea from Ukraine and its joining to Russia is welcome.
That the state 's foreign policy is often openly cynical and has long been known to everyone. However, it would be good to our President Barack Obama recalled saying someone famous Italian philosopher and politician Niccolo Machiavelli , " one escaped trouble yourself in another , but in the fact wisdom to weighing all possible trouble , the lesser evil for the good of honor ."
In recent days, even in the leading Western media there are more articles and interviews where Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry transparent reminded that their angry tirades against Putin and the upcoming referendum in the Crimea is not just saturated with cynicism and those superlatives.
Even such pillars of the American press, as New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, ForeignPolicy.com, and many others are beginning to speak not only of frequent violations of international law by the United States, but also numerous facts straight income Washington in the internal affairs of other countries, including in the process of forming a new government in Ukraine . Moreover, many media are seriously concerned about the participation of representatives of governments openly “neonatsist” circles.
Not to mention the famous telephone conversation deputy. Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine , and using profanity in which they discussed whom to appoint in Kiev on what position , press outraged by the behavior of the same Nuland , Senator McCain and other top American and European politicians openly flirt with extremists and neo-Nazis on the Maidan .
However, now the main topic discussed - is the issue of sanctions and here Obama, Merkel and other Western leaders should remember the above words of Machiavelli , and weigh the consequences of these sanctions. Will they be good or evil, they will create a problem only for Russia, but perhaps for the West, and they will not strike most in Ukraine ?
If Obama Ukrainians are not simply pawns in a geopolitical game, then he should think about it and Statecraft , befitting the president of a great power . He should stop making irresponsible statements and loud and spend time on pointless PR , like meeting with the "kamikaze" Yatsenyuk.
Instead, Obama should immediately convene a conference to invite Putin major European and Chinese leaders for constructive discussion almost forgotten ideas of George Bush Sr. about creating arcs security and economic cooperation from Vancouver to Vladivostok , which will now be promoted to Beijing. It is clear that there is currently no serious geopolitical configuration can not be sustained without the participation of China.
All this may sound rather naive , but while in Washington and Brussels, we did not hear any more constructive ideas , in addition to the threat of sanctions . Moreover, inflame themselves with such threats , you can reach a dangerous level , and even then it will be not only a return to the Cold War that has already occurred, but a repetition of the situation with the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 , and even , God forbid , to third World War.
Understand whether it is in Washington? I think yes, but , apparently , there is completely different agenda . By and large, Obama holds the same short-sighted policy in relation to Russia , and that George W. Bush . After the tragic events of September 11, Putin immediately called Bush and America offered virtually unlimited support of his country. This support would later play an important role in the defeat of the Taliban and thereby saved many lives of American military during the war in Afghanistan.
While almost all U.S. politicians to praise Putin and greeted him almost as a national hero. To consolidate the relations between the two countries , Putin proposed Bush to create a strategic alliance between Russia and the United States for further mutually beneficial military and economic cooperation , but this proposal was summarily rejected. Such an alliance would be an invaluable contribution not only in the fight against global jihad , but also for the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction , energy security and cooperation in many other areas , from agriculture to space exploration. Instead, Washington launched a crusade color revolutions on the former Soviet republics, and continued efforts to further NATO expansion, including Georgia and Ukraine . According to one of the most prominent American diplomat George Kennan , this policy was the greatest mistake that will lead to a new Cold War , which, unfortunately , happened.
It is no secret that the current crisis was triggered by the efforts of Brussels , I think not without the knowledge of Washington, then six post-Soviet countries have been invited to sign an association agreement with the EU. And no one really no secret that the main aim of this project was not so much a desire to help the economic development of these countries as an attempt to isolate them from Russia . Quite naturally, if it really was a question of helping them , it should be included in this list , and that Russia would benefit all parties and, above all , Ukraine , given its close family , economic, religious and cultural ties with Russia .
It is clear that the idea expressed here - is the voice of one crying in the wilderness, and it can implement only with the arrival of man in the White House with the strategic vision of Ronald Reagan , surrounded by a group of wise counselors who understand that in America's interest to try to make Russia as an ally . Unlikely this can be achieved under the present administration, so we have no choice but to wait for new elections in 2016. In the meantime, you need to do everything possible to avoid the worst-case scenario in the form of a direct confrontation between Russia and the United States .
Time is working against the government winning Maidens , who simply do not know what to do with this power . Or know ? Several questions arise : 1. Frequent consultations in Brussels Yatsenyuk evrovlastyami yielded nothing Ukraine to maintain its integrity and economic revival . Why Europe is not interested in a strong and democratic Ukraine , which is a full member of the EU ? Apparently, no 2 . Injection of nationalist rhetoric is rejection at residents of the eastern regions and the Crimea , but welcomed the western region of Ukraine , where there is no "successful" multibillion oligarchs recklessly appointed governors Kiev eastern provinces. For what it is , who initially creates a divided society with a different approach to the property ? Brussels hosts that do not need Ukraine as a whole successful state with its place in the general division of labor 3 . Deliberate incitement still cold war with Russia , Ukrainians and Russian opposition , the game Russophobian sentiments central and western parts of Ukraine , with the actual boost eastern regions to secede from " Nenko " and the opposition in Moscow and Kiev . Authority of the victorious revolution divide Ukraine hurry, drawing her into chaos ? Yes, these actions are peaceful plan for Europe "independence» of Ukraine, because someone - he must pay for the mistakes of the EU. The next will be the payer Russia.
Arayik Sargsyan, Academician, President of the Academy of Geopolitics , Honorary Consul of Macedonia to Armenia.
http://www.pukmedia.com/EN/RU_Direje.aspx?Jimare=15142

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