Russia continued to tighten its grip on Crimea and more pro-Russian demonstrations broke out in eastern Ukraine, as Moscow ignored Western threats to punish it for the military incursion into Ukraine with trade sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
The post-revolution Ukrainian government in Kiev, led by people who barely 10 days ago were opposition politicians and protesters, said Monday that Russia had demanded that its navy and army bases in Crimea surrender their arms or face a military attack. Russia denied it issued an ultimatum, but its forces and sympathetic local militias fanned out across the peninsula and were surrounding beleaguered Ukrainian positions.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who with Western allies has warned Russia faces diplomatic isolation and possible trade sanctions, accused Moscow of being “on the wrong side of history.” The Pentagon later announced it is suspending “all military-to-military” co-operation with Russia, while Mr. Obama said he was exploring the idea of sending international monitors to “de-escalate the situation.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in his latest statement backing the interim Kiev government, repeated his call to President Vladimir Putin to immediately withdraw his military and said Russia risks losing its place in the G-8 forum of industrialized nations. Canada has already recalled its ambassador in Moscow and cancelled government representation at the Paralympics games scheduled to take place in Russia.
In Crimea, some Ukraine soldiers appeared to be digging in for a long standoff. Military at two bases were refusing to give up on Monday despite being surrounded by heavily-armed Russian troops, a stance that drew praise from many local residents. “My husband says they will not give up and they will stay there until the end,” said Elena Burdalenko , whose husband was serving at a base at Perevalnoye, a village outside Simferopol, as she stood outside with her four-month-old baby. “They are ready to fight against the Russian soldiers.”
About 700 Ukrainian troops were trapped inside, but the atmosphere was calm. The Russian soldiers walked casually with their machine guns and allowed onlookers to take their photos. Several busloads of Russian supporters and Cossacks, a kind of pro-Russian volunteer paramilitary group, showed up as well, standing alongside the Russian soldiers and waving flags. Mothers and children walked over from a nearby apartment complex and gawked at an armoured vehicle.
But tension – and confrontation – dominated discussions of the Ukraine situation at the United Nations, NATO and the European Commission. In Brussels, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned of “a real danger of a split in Europe,” adding that “we are in the most serious crisis for Europe since the fall of the [Berlin] wall.”
Speaking before the UN Security Council, Ukraine’s ambassador, Yuriy Sergeyev, accused Russia of having deployed 16,000 troops in Crimea, an autonomous and largely Russian-speaking region on the Black Sea where pro-Russian sympathies are strong. It was the third emergency Security Council meeting in four days on the Ukraine crisis, which erupted when Mr. Putin won hands-down approval from his parliament last weekend to take military action “to stabilize” Ukraine.
The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, dismissed Russian claims that it acted to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea and elsewhere in eastern Ukraine after Mr. Putin’s ally, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted as president. “Russia has every right to wish that events in Ukraine had turned out differently,” she said. “But it does not have the right to express that unhappiness by using military force.”
While most cities in eastern Ukraine returned to an uneasy calm, after the clashes last week that followed the collapse of Mr. Yanukovych’s government, pro-Russian gangs attacked and took over a government office in the city of Donesk. In scattered places across Crimea, the presence of Russian troops and allied militias at military bases prompted heated arguments.
In Bakhchisaray, about 60 kilometres south of Simferopol, Russian soldiers surrounded a small base Sunday night. After several hours of negotiating on Monday with a representative of Crimea’s pro-Russian government, which supports the autonomous republic breaking away from Ukraine, the base commander said the troops would not leave. “We should speak with every soldier and take an answer from each of them,” said Sergei Steshenko, who said he represented the Crimean provincial government.
A small crowd gathered and many shouted at Mr. Steshenko, demanding the Russian troops leave. One man quoted from the Koran and others demanded to know the legal basis for Crimea’s decision to hold a referendum on separation this month. Mr. Steshenko cautioned some of them not to be “provocateurs,” a serious charge in Ukraine.
“The situation we have here now is an occupation,” said Elmey Umelov, a Bakhchisaray city councillor who is Tatar. “Russian soldiers are everywhere now. This problem must be solved in Kiev by political ways. Not here.”
At one point two women arrived with food and some yellow and blue balloons, Ukraine’s national colours, for the soldiers inside the base. “We only wanted to help them say that they are with them,” said one of the women, Elvina Ergashova. She added that she disagrees with the Russian troops in Crimea and wants them to leave. “We as Crimeans are already living in united Ukraine. We are neighbours with Russia, we are different nations and we live in peace. If Russian wants to fight someone they can go to Sibera and fight each other.”
In Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, there was little sign of any Russian military activity even though the local government has completely sided with the Russians. Schools reopened Monday, the airport was back in business and the streets were packed with cars and buses. The only visible evidence of the Russian presence was Russia’s flag flying alongside the flag of Crimea on top of the local parliament. A man also sold small Russian flags from a street corner.
With reports from Reuters, Associated Press and Kathryn Blaze Carlson in Ottawa
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