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Crimea will ‘always’ be part of Ukraine, minister insists

Ukrainian air force officers walk with their belongings at the Belbek airbase, outside Sevastopol, Crimea, on Thursday, March 20, 2014. With thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and sailors trapped on military bases, surrounded by heavily armed Russian forces and pro-Russia militia, the Kiev government said it was drawing up plans to evacuate its outnumbered troops from Crimea back to the mainland and would seek UN support to turn the peninsula into a demilitarized zone.

Ivan Sekretarev/AP

Ukraine's deputy defence minister has insisted Crimea will always be a part of the country even as his military partly relies on donations to help soldiers surrounded on the peninsula by pro-Russian forces.

Crimea "will always be Ukrainian territory. And it is just a matter of time [before] it gets back under Ukrainian jurisdiction," deputy defence minister Leonid Ployakov told reporters Thursday.

Asked if Ukraine officials controlled any part of Crimea, Mr. Ployakov said: "Of course." He did not provide details and walked off.

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The Ukrainian government has drawn up a plan to remove its troops and their families based in Crimea, as military compounds are overrun by Russian and pro-Russian forces. Mr. Ployakov said a Ukrainian naval ship had been surrounded by mines and its crew was being told repeatedly that it had to join the new Crimean military.

Just how Ukraine will get its troops out of Crimea remains to be seen. Mr. Ployakov said the situation is "tense and complex," but he did not provide details about how the troops will leave. He added that some combat troops are ready to fight the Russian and pro-Russians, but logistical units are more gun-shy.

Ukraine's military launched a fundraising campaign called "Support the Ukrainian Army" a few days ago, urging people to donate as little as 5 hryvnyas, or less than $1, by texting 565 on their mobile phones. The money will go toward bolstering the country's woefully understaffed military. The government has said it has only 6,000 combat-ready troops and supplies of key materials, such as fuel and clothing, have run critically low.

"Ukraine is in danger," says a notice on the Ministry of Defence website promoting the fundraising campaign. "The army will protect everyone," it adds, but soldiers need things like bulletproof body armour. "Together – Power."

Some of the money is also goes to support troops stationed in Crimea. A giant sign advertising the campaign has also been posted on the main stage in Kiev's Independence Square, where the protest movement against ousted president Viktor Yannukovych started.

On Thursday, Mr. Ployakov said more than 25 million hryvnyas (about $3-million) had been donated so far by Ukrainians and people abroad. The military hailed the amount, saying in a statement that the "Armed Forces of Ukraine expressed its sincere gratitude to all concerned citizens who participated in the charity event … and continue to provide assistance to national armed forces to enhance their combat readiness and strengthen the country's defences."

Mr. Ployakov said many people have donated food, water and other supplies to soldiers. "Our message is we have never forgotten about you, we think about you," he said, referring to the troops.

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Earlier on Thursday, Crimean officials released the head of Ukraine's navy, Rear Admiral Serhiy Haiduk, who had been held for questioning since Wednesday after pro-Russian forces took control of the Ukrainian naval headquarters in Sevastopol.

Meanwhile, Ukraine's Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, is in Brussels, where leaders of the European Union are expected to discuss further sanctions against Russia. So far the sanctions have been largely asset freezes and travel bans on specific Russians. It is not clear how much farther the EU will go since Russia is a key supplier of gas, oil and industrial minerals to Europe.

Leaders will "make it clear that we're always ready to enact stage-three measures if the situation worsens," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, referring to the most serious sanctions. "And without any doubt, this will also be about economic sanctions."

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