Saturday, August 30, 2014
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Russian forces expand control of Crimea

A Russian navy minesweeper patrols the harbor of Sevastopol, where a Ukrainian command ship was boxed in. Other Russian warships were stationed at the mouth of the harbor to prevent an escape to sea.
A Russian navy minesweeper patrols the harbor of Sevastopol, where a Ukrainian command ship was boxed in. Other Russian warships were stationed at the mouth of the harbor to prevent an escape to sea. ANDREW LUBIMOV / AP
A Russian navy minesweeper patrols the harbor of Sevastopol, where a Ukrainian command ship was boxed in. Other Russian warships were stationed at the mouth of the harbor to prevent an escape to sea. Gallery: Russian forces expand control of Crimea
SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine - The embattled government in Kiev said Monday night that Russian forces had dramatically escalated the standoff between the two nations by giving Ukraine's army and navy in Crimea a blunt ultimatum: Pledge allegiance to the region's new pro-Russia leadership by morning or be forced by Russia to submit.

A spokesman for the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which is berthed in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, denied that a threat had been made, and the Russian Defense Ministry called the accusation "utter nonsense." But as Russian troops and warships surrounded Ukrainian security installations throughout the autonomous Crimean Peninsula, it was clear that Ukrainian forces believed they faced an imminent threat even though no shot had been fired.

A Ukrainian Defense Ministry official alleged that Russia's Black Sea Fleet commander had set a deadline of 5 a.m. Tuesday - 10 p.m. Monday Philadelphia time - for Ukrainian forces to capitulate, according to the Interfax-Ukrainian news agency.

The stepped-up Russian troop movements came two days after the Russian parliament approved the use of force to protect the country's citizens and military sites in Crimea, a region with deep ties to Russia. The actions on Monday triggered a cascade of condemnation from European and U.S. officials, who vowed that Russia would face consequences if it did not pull its soldiers back.

President Obama said that Moscow was "on the wrong side of history," and threatened "a whole series of steps - economics, diplomatic" to isolate Russia and "have a negative impact on its economy and its standing in the world."

At the U.N., during the third emergency meeting of the Security Council since Friday, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Ukraine's fugitive president, Viktor Yanukovych, had requested Russian soldiers in Crimea "to establish legitimacy, peace, law and order," contradicting Yanukovych's own comments last week, the Associated Press reported.

During the heated meeting, Churkin defended his government's actions as "fully appropriate and legitimate" to defend the human rights of the Russian-speaking minority in Ukraine.

In the deepwater harbor at Sevastopol, a Ukrainian naval command ship was confronted Monday evening by four tugboats flying Russian colors and boxed in by a Russian minesweeper. Other warships appeared at the mouth of the harbor to block an escape to the sea. A nearby Ukrainian naval station flew a Russian flag.

As the anxious wives of officers on the Ukrainian ship watched from shore, its crew rushed about in what appeared to be an attempt to repel boarders. The sailors - who carried sidearms and military assault rifles - fixed mattresses to the railings, uncoiled fire hoses, and brought firefighting equipment on deck.

On Monday night, the Russian Black Sea Fleet ordered the crew members to lay down their arms and leave the ships, according to the UNIAN news agency, quoting a Ukrainian military source.

Ukrainian officials expressed fears that the tensions could lead to violence overnight, which could give Russia reason to justify military action.

"Provocations with killing of three to four Russian soldiers are planned on the territory of Crimea tonight," said Deputy Interior Minister Mykola Velichkovych, the ministry's press service reported. Speaking to the Russians, Velichkovych said: "We call on you to come to your senses. We call on you to stop."

Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchinov, said Monday that he had been in communication with Ukraine's military commanders in Crimea, and they assured him that they would not yield to the Russians, according to the UNN news agency of Ukraine.

Western diplomats pressed for Russia to pull back. In an interview with the BBC, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who was in Kiev, said that the Russian intervention in Crimea has produced "a very tense and dangerous situation" that amounted to Europe's "biggest crisis" so far in the 21st century.

"The world cannot just allow this to happen. The world cannot just say it is OK, in effect, to violate the sovereignty of another nation in this way," said Hague, whose American counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry, was due in Kiev on Tuesday.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the European Union would have an emergency summit Thursday and take action against Russia if it has not sent troops back to their barracks in the Crimea by then.

But the Western threats appeared to have made little impact on Russia by Monday night. Speaking in Geneva, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov justified the Russian troop deployment as necessary to protect Russians living in Crimea "until the normalization of the political situation" in Ukraine, where months of protests led to the ouster of pro-Russian Yanukovych more than two weeks ago.

Russian forces, already in control of much of Crimea, took possession of a ferry terminal in Kerch, in the eastern part of the peninsula just across a strait from Russian territory, according to reports from the area. The terminal serves as a departure point for many ships heading to Russia and could be used to send even more Russian troops into Crimea.

Ukrainian news media reported that a representative of Russia's Black Sea Fleet also called on members of Ukrainian Aviation Brigade at an air base in Belbek to denounce Ukrainian government authority and swear allegiance to the new Crimean government. By nightfall, the Ukrainian aviators were still on their air base.

In the capital, Ukraine's interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, urged the West to provide political and economic support as the Kiev stock market dropped a record 12 percent and the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, fell to new lows against the dollar and euro. The crisis also caused the Moscow market to fall 10 percent and the Russian ruble to dive.

Yatsenyuk stressed that Crimea remained part of Ukraine, but he conceded there were "for today, no military options on the table."

Obama administration officials said Russia now has 6,000 troops in Crimea. Military experts estimate the size of the Ukrainian military in Crimea is about 30,000, but many of those are support staff.

While Ukrainian troops have held firm and refused to open their gates, they are in an increasingly precarious position, "with no way out and no one to rescue them," said a specialist on military affairs in Eurasia, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

This article contains information from the Associated Press.

William Booth and Will Englund Washington Post
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