Russia’s government on Monday accused right-wing militants and Ukraine’s new pro-Western government of causing “chaos” in the eastern part of the country, as pro-Russian forces stormed a number of Ukrainian military bases across the Crimean Peninsula, washingtonpost.com reports.
The Russian statement, which alleged that pro-Russian demonstrators had been attacked by masked gunmen, represented a possible pretext for further Russian intervention and appeared likely to raise concerns of a widening conflict.
Russian authorities issued similar statements as pro-Russian forces now believed to number 18,000 swooped into the southern Ukrainian territory of Crimea at the end of last month. On Monday, those forces appeared bent on eliminating Ukrainian resistance ahead of a referendum on joining Russia that has been scheduled for Sunday.
The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine said Monday that the United States would not recognize the results of that referendum and that Crimea must remain a part of Ukraine.
But on the ground in Crimea, there was little ambiguity about who was in control, and it was not the Ukrainian government.
Vladislav Seleznyov, a Ukrainian Defense Department spokesman in Crimea, said that 200 armed men in uniforms arrived in 14 trucks around 1:30 a.m. Monday at an army missile base in Chernomorskoye, in western Crimea, and ordered the troops on the base to give up their weapons. The Ukrainian soldiers refused but stored their weapons in an arsenal on the base and left, Seleznyov said. Initial reports said that about 30 Ukrainian personnel were trapped inside.
There were similar reports from other Ukrainian military installations, including a navy facility for radio communications near the Black Sea port of Sevastapol, a military hospital in the regional capital of Simferopol and two bases around the Tatar village of Bakhchysaray, Seleznyov said.
According to Lt. Col. Sergei Sadovnik, commander of a Ukrainian army logistics and transportation base in Bakhchysaray, the base 19 miles southwest of Simferopol was taken over by a group of armed and uniformed men, several of whom appeared around him as he addressed reporters gathered outside the front gate Monday.
“I’m the commander of this unit. They invited me for a day and a half to be their guest,” he said with an ironic smile. “I was treated well, and they gave me food and water.”
He said about 100 soldiers were inside and that none has been injured. Sadovnik said he and his soldiers were isolated. “I have no link to my commanders now, even by phone,” he said.
He was escorted inside by the armed militiamen. Then a spokesman for the captors came out and said, “We are here to take control of this base, to make sure there is no provocation and no violence.”
Just inside the front gate stood armed men wearing masks and carrying military assault rifles, plus about 15 other armed men in uniforms. No Ukrainian soldiers were visible except the commander.
The apparent tightening of Russian control in Crimea came a day after the White House announced that Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk would visit Washington and meet with President Obama on Wednesday.
Geoffrey R. Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said at a news conference Monday in Kiev that Obama’s talks with Yatsenyuk would focus on the Crimean crisis as well as the dire economic situation in Ukraine. He reiterated that there is no “military solution” to the crisis and called on the Ukrainian military to continue to show restraint in the standoff with Russia.
The United States will not recognize the results of a Crimean referendum scheduled for Sunday on whether to join Russia or remain part of Ukraine with greater autonomy, Pyatt said.
“Any increase of the autonomy of Crimea should be done not under the barrel of a gun, but in a clear, transparent and constitutional process,” Pyatt said.
Pyatt said diplomatic efforts were continuing, but there was little evidence on Monday that they were gaining traction. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had declined an invitation to Russia for talks, and the Russian Foreign Ministry released an angry statement that blamed unrest in eastern Ukraine on the pro-Western government in Kiev.
The statement said Russia was “outraged by the chaos which is currently ruling in eastern regions of Ukraine” and accused right-wing militants of acting with the “connivance of the new authorities,” according to the Russian news service Interfax. The ministry alleged that “well-equipped people in masks and with firearms opened fire at peaceful protesters” in the eastern city of Kharkiv on Saturday, causing injuries.
Witnesses have described very different scenes, accusing pro-Russian demonstrators of attacking Ukrainian loyalists. Pro-Russian sentiment runs high in eastern Ukraine, as it does in Crimea.
In a news conference last week, Putin kept open the option of sending in Russian troops if Russian-speakers were threatened in Ukraine’s south and east.
The United States has called on both Russia and Ukraine to show restraint, but Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsya suggested Monday that that is becoming more difficult.
“We have to admit that our life now is almost like . . . a war,” Deshchytsya said, speaking in English. “We have to cope with an aggression that we do not understand.”