March 4, 2014


[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.]

By  and , 

Standoff in Crimea: Russian troops and pro-Russian militants take up positions 
around the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine, surrounding government 
buildings and military installations.

MOSCOW Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting with a small group of reporters Tuesday, said Russia reserves the right to use all means to protect Russians in Ukraine.

Putin spoke as if there were no Russian troops in Ukraine, saying,“If I decide to use armed forces, it will be in line with international law.” That’s because, he said, ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych has requested military help.

Putin insisted that the armed men seen in Crimea in green uniforms without insignia, driving vehicles without markers, were not Russian — defying the observations of numerous journalists. “Look at former Soviet republics,” he said. “You can go to a store and buy a uniform. Were these Russian soldiers? No, they’re very well-trained self-defense forces.”

He also said the acting president of Ukraine came to power unlawfully.

“My assessment is that it’s an unconstitutional overthrow and an armed seizure of power. No one has challenged that. Who is saying it’s not true?” he said.

Putin said although he had warned Yanukovych that he could not be reelected, “There’s only one legitimate president. From the legal point of view, it’s Mr. Yanukovych.”

He criticized the United States for approving the armed seizure of power and chaos in Ukraine. He referred to the ouster of the pro-Russian Yanukovych last month after nearly 90 protesters were killed in a crackdown by security forces on anti-government demonstrations in Kiev. The Ukrainian parliament then voted to remove Yanukovych, who subsequently fled to Russia.

“They sit there across the pond as if in a lab running all kinds of experiments on the rats,” Putin said. “Why would they do it? No one can explain it.”

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 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.

Early Tuesday, in a sign that he might be trying to defuse tensions, or that he has accomplished what he wants in Crimea, Putin ordered troops conducting military exercises near Ukraine in Western Russia to return to their bases, according to Russian news agencies. The military exercises were scheduled to end today.

The standoff in Crimea continued.

There were several reports that a pro-Russian fighter, part of a group that had taken control of an air base in Crimea, fired a warning shot into the air Tuesday as Ukrainian soldiers returned to demand their jobs back at the Belbek airport.

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 Eastern time — for Ukrainian forces to capitulate, according to the Interfax-Ukrainian news agency. There were no immediate reports of activity after the deadline passed.

The stepped-up Russian troop movements came two days after Russia’s 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 American officials, who vowed that Russia would face consequences if it did not pull back its troops.

President Obama said Moscow was “on the wrong side of history” and threatened “a whole series of steps — economic, diplomatic — that will isolate Russia and will have a negative impact on Russia’s economy and its status in the world.”

In Sevastopol harbor, Russian warships and tugs continued their blockade Tuesday morning against a trio of Ukrainian navy ships trapped at dock. A Russian dive ship used to aid stranded submarines passed by the bow of the ship and blasted its klaxon horn.

“It was much worse at night. They were provoking the ships, coming too close and shining search lights at them,” said one of the wives of an officer aboard the ship.

The Ukrainian sailors shouted from deck that they had no intention of surrendering and denied rumors that one of their ships had raised Russians colors.

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.

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

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

“The world cannot just allow this to happen,” said Hague, whose American counterpart, Secretary of State John F. 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.

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 headed to Russia and could be used to send more Russian troops into Crimea.

Ukrainian news media reported that a representative of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet also called on members of Ukraine’s Aviation Brigade at an air base in Belbek to denounce the Ukrainian government’s authority and swear allegiance to the new Crimean government. By nightfall, the Ukrainian aviators were still on their 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 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 that there were “for today, no military options on the table.”

Obama administration officials said Russia now has 6,000 troops in Crimea. Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations said Monday that 16,000 additional Russian troops had been deployed to Crimea in the past six days. Military experts estimate that the size of the Ukrainian military in Crimea is about 30,000, but many of those are support staff.

Ukraine’s military, at an estimated 130,000 troops, is a considerably larger force than the small and poorly armed Georgian military that the Russians were able to intimidate in 2008, when those two countries went to war over breakaway territory.

But 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,” a specialist on military affairs in Eurasia said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is prohibited by his employer from talking to the news media without permission.

“The Russian troops surrounding them are clearly well-trained special forces, well-disciplined enough that they managed to box up the Ukrainian forces without firing a shot,” the specialist said.

But some military experts said that despite appearances, they doubt that Russia is eager for a fight that might carry a steep price. Even in eastern Ukraine, where Russian is the predominant language, an incursion by Moscow could unify the divided country, said Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses in Alexandria, Va.

“They are certainly more pro-Russian and Russian speaking” in the east, he said, “but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a Ukrainian national identity, especially when they are attacked. It is hard to imagine a course of action on the part of Russia that could have done more to unify Ukraine than what has been done.”

The Ukrainian military has no obvious fault lines, no ethnic or regional differences, that might make it vulnerable to defection and dissension.

At the same time, individual loyalties are unknown. If Yanukovych were to appoint himself head of a government in exile, he might be able to call in old favors from among officers. Like other institutions in Ukraine, the military has been beset by corruption, which could mean officers might be beholden to people other than their superiors.

In Sevastopol, a Ukrainian admiral who defected to the side of the pro-Russian Crimean government tried to persuade his fellow officers in a meeting Monday morning to join him. They refused.

As they did in Sunday’s standoff at a Ukrainian army base in Perevalne, armed Russian troops, demonstrating who was in charge, posted guards at the gates of the Ukraine naval station in Sevastopol as Ukrainian marines appeared to be trapped inside the base.

Booth reported from Sevastopol.