Ukraine has started to withdraw its troops from Crimea to the mainland amid fears Russia plans further military incursions into their territory after militiamen seized three Ukrainian ships today.
Russian troops have majority control of the Black Sea peninsula after storming three Ukrainian warships following the takeover of several military bases.
Ukrainian servicemen were also seen disembarking a third ship, the Ternopil corvette. There were not thought to be any casualties, however.
The action came hours before European Union leaders agreed to widen the list of Russian officials subject to personal sanctions over the seizure of Crimea – while asking the European Commission to prepare for broader economic sanctions if the crisis escalates.Shots were fired and stun grenades as the Ukrainian corvette Khmelnitsky was seized in Sevastopol while another ship, the Lutsk, was also surrounded by pro-Russian forces.
Earlier today, the U.S. expanded economic sanctions against Moscow over its actions in Ukraine, targeting President Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff and 19 other individuals. President Obama also warned of more costs to come is the situation worsens.
Ukraine said its troops are being threatened on the ground in Crimea today as naval headquarters in Sevastopol were taken over as was another naval facility 30kms away in Bakhchisaray.
Extraordinary scenes followed as downcast Ukrainian servicemen, unarmed and in civilian clothing, began abandoning the bases, some with ‘nowhere to go’ while others were reported to have already defected to Russian forces.
Out of Ukraine’s 25,000 troops in Crimea, it is estimated there are still thousands who remain trapped in the region as Russian troops close in around them.
‘We are working out a plan of action so that we can transfer not just servicemen, but first of all, members of their family who are in Crimea, quickly and effectively to mainland Ukraine,’ said Andriy Parubiy, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council.
Terms and conditions of the withdrawal have yet to be agreed but Ukrainian border guards in Crimea, under the control of Russia’s military, have started redeploying to regions on the mainland.
‘We have started the gradual redeployment of our servicemen to the territory of Kherson and Mikolayiv regions,’ Pavlo Shysholin, deputy head of the state border guard service, told a news conference.
Shysholin also said about 1,000 civilians had so far left the peninsula.
Meanwhile Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Yurii Klymenko, has also expressed concerns that Russia may be intending a further military incursion into Ukraine territory.
He said: ‘There are indications that Russia is on its way to unleash a full blown military intervention in Ukraine’s east and south’.
His statement was widely supported by other ambassadors, but challenged by a Russian diplomat, who read a prepared statement justifying Russia’s actions so far.
Russia’s defense minister assured US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel by telephone that Russian forces along Ukraine’s eastern border have no intention of crossing into Ukrainian territory.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, said that in an hour-long conversation Thursday, Hagel asked for an explanation of Russian intentions for the thousands of troops positioned near the Ukrainian border.
Kirby said Hagel was told that the troops are there for just one purpose: to conduct training exercises.
This morning, Ukrainian troops at Belbek airbase in the wine-growing country near Crimea’s southwestern coast were leaving with large bags containing their belongings.
They weren’t evacuating, they said, just transferring their things to a safe place as they were worried that pro-Russian mobs might loot the facility, which they heard happened the day before in nearby Sevastopol.
Since the Russian forces took charge in Crimea, Ukrainian-enlisted personnel and officers have been bottled up in barracks and other buildings at one end of the Belbek base, with the Russians in control of the airfield.
‘We’re waiting for what Kiev, our leadership, tells us,’ said one major, who declined to give his name.
The major said he expected about half of the personnel still at the base to accept the Russian offer to stay and join the Russian armed forces since they are Crimea natives.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today told Russian President Vladimir Putin that he was ‘deeply concerned’ by the situation involving Ukraine and Russia.
Ban is on a visit to both nations to encourage all parties involved in the crisis over Ukraine and its Crimea region, which Western nations say Russia has illegally annexed, to find a peaceful solution.
EU leaders met in Brussels today to discuss how to deal with the developments in Crimea.
Travel bans and asset freezes were placed on 12 more people, closing in on President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle to punish him in the escalating crisis over the Russian annexation of the Crimea peninsula.
The move brought the number of Russians and Ukrainians facing EU sanctions to 33, and French President Francois Hollande said it included a lot of crossover with the people the United States is targeting with similar measures.
‘We added 12 people, in concert with the Americans,’ Hollande said.
The 28-nation bloc said the names of the sanctioned would be published Friday. ‘Some of them are really high-ranking,’ said EU President Herman Van Rompuy.
Germany’s Angela Merkel said the EU was ready to support Ukraine’s new government financially, provided it reached a deal with the International Monetary Fund, which she said talks had made substantial progress and a deal was expected soon.
She told a news conference after the first day of the summit the EU was prepared to send an observer mission to Ukraine but would prefer the pan-European security watchdog OSCE to send monitors if Russia will agree on a mandate.
Merkel declined to say how many names would be added to the EU blacklist of people subject to visa bans and asset freezes on Friday but said they were of the same level as the 21 mid-ranking Russian and Crimean officials sanctioned last week.
Ahead of the EU leaders’ meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the European Union will impose more sanctions on Russia and that the G8 forum has been suspended indefinitely.
The United States and its G7 allies will gather next week in The Hague without Russia to consider a further response to the Kremlin’s moves in Crimea.
But President Barack Obama HAS already stepped up pressure on Russia by announcing further sanctions on Russia on Thursday.
The U.S. expanded economic sanctions against Moscow over its actions in Ukraine, targeting President Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff and 19 other individuals.
The new American sanctions hit close advisers to Putin. They include Sergei Ivanov, the Russian president’s chief of staff and a longtime associate.
Also targeted were Arkady Rotenberg and Gennady Timchenko, both lifelong Putin friends whose companies have amassed billions of dollars in government contracts.
Finally, Bank Rossiya, a private bank that is owned by Yuri Kovalchuk, who is considered to be Putin’s banker was also sanctioned.
Obama, warning of more costs to come for the Kremlin if the situation worsens, said he also signed an executive order that would allow the U.S. to penalize key sectors of the Russian economy.
Officials said Obama could act on that authority if Russian forces press into other areas of Ukraine, an escalation of the crisis in Crimea.
The president said the latest penalties were the result of ‘choices the Russian government has made, choices that have been rejected by the international community’.
‘Russia must know that further escalation will only isolate it further from the international community,’ Obama said, speaking from the South Lawn of the White House.
Russia then announced retaliatory sanctions on nine U.S. officials and lawmakers on Thursday, warning the West it would hit back over ‘every hostile thrust’.
Deputy national security advisers Ben Rhodes and Caroline Atkinson and senators John McCain, Harry Reid and Mary Landrieu, Dan Coats and Robert Menendez were among the Americans barred from Russia, the Foreign Ministry said.
The others were House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama.
‘We have repeatedly warned that sanctions are a double-edged instrument and would hit the United States like a boomerang,’ the Russian Foreign Ministry said. ‘There must be no doubt: We will respond adequately to every hostile thrust.’
It comes after Obama ruled out U.S. military involvement in Ukraine on Wednesday night – emphasizing the need for diplomacy in the U.S. standoff with Russia over Crimea.
‘We are not going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine,’ Obama told KNSD, San Diego’s NBC affiliate, in an interview.
‘We do not need to trigger an actual war with Russia,’ he told KSDK, a St. Louis station owned by Gannett in a separate interview.
Obama, who imposed sanctions on 11 Russian and Ukrainian officials on Monday, said the United States will push diplomatic efforts to bring pressure on Russia to loosen its grip on the Crimea region of southern Ukraine.
‘There is a better path, but I think even the Ukrainians would acknowledge that for us to engage Russia militarily would not be appropriate and would not be good for Ukraine either,’ Obama told KNSD.
His comments coincided with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden reassuring Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia that America will defend any NATO member against aggression.
The three countries – which like Ukraine were all parts of the old Soviet Union – have expressed growing apprehension over Moscow’s intentions.
Poland has decided to speed up its tender for a missile defence system, a defence ministry spokesman said on Thursday, in a sign of Warsaw’s disquiet over the tension between neighbouring Ukraine and Russia.
Russia signaled concern on Wednesday at Estonia’s treatment of its large ethnic Russian minority, comparing language policy in the Baltic state with what it said was a call in Ukraine to prevent the use of Russian.
Russia has defended its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula by arguing it has the right to protect Russian-speakers outside its borders, so the reference to linguistic tensions in another former Soviet republic comes at a highly sensitive moment.
But Vice President Biden assured the Baltic republics: ‘We’re in this with you, together.’
The three countries were overrun by Stalin during the Second World War and only won their freedom with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Biden added: ‘Russia cannot escape the fact that the world is changing and rejecting outright their behaviour.’
Heavyweight boxing champion Vladimir Klitschko urged Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday not to ‘repeat the mistakes of history’ in his confrontation with Ukraine, the boxer’s homeland.
Klitschko is the younger brother of Vitaly Klitschko, a member of parliament in Ukraine and a leader of the opposition that helped topple Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovich last month.
‘You cannot repeat the mistakes of history and there were a lot of mistakes,’ the 37-year-old boxing champ told reporters in his training camp in Hollywood, Florida, where the side of a ring was draped with a Ukrainian flag.
‘Every country, every former Soviet republic has its own desire and will to look in the direction they want to look – east, west, south, north. It’s their own decision,’ he said.
It comes after masked Russian-speaking troops forced their way onto Ukraine’s main naval base in Sevastopol yesterday morning, detaining the head of Ukraine’s navy and seizing the facility.
The incursion, which Ukraine’s defence ministry described as being led by a self-described local defence force, Cossacks and ‘aggressive women’, proceeded with no resistance.
Upon gaining entrance to the base, the storming party raised a Russian flag on the headquarters square.
The unarmed militiamen waited for an hour on the square and, following the arrival of the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, they took over the building with the support of armed Russian-speaking troops.
By afternoon, they were in full control of the naval headquarters, a set of three-storey white concrete buildings with blue trim.
There was nothing we could do against the crowd,’ said one Ukrainian officer. ‘Everything happened spontaneously.’ Another officer said they had ‘no orders and no weapons.’
The Ukrainian defence ministry said Rear Admiral Sergei Haiduk was detained, and a news agency close to the Russian-backed local authorities reported that he had been summoned for questioning by prosecutors.
Later in the day, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu ordered the Crimean authorities to release him. He was let go this morning.
Russian troops also seized another Ukrainian naval facility in Crimea late on Wednesday in Bakhchisaray, about 30 km (20 miles) southwest of the regional capital, Simferopol.
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.
Just how many retreating troops Ukraine will have to absorb in what amounts to a military surrender of Crimea was unclear.
Many servicemen have already switched sides to Russia, but authorities said they were prepared to relocate as many as 25,000 soldiers and their families to the Ukrainian mainland.
Humbled but defiant, Ukraine last night lashed out symbolically at Russia by declaring its intent to leave the Moscow-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose alliance of 11 former Soviet nations.
But Ukraine has been largely powerless to prevent Russian troops from taking control of Crimea, which President Vladimir Putin formally annexed on Tuesday with the stroke of a pen.
Crimea’s absorption came after a hastily organised referendum in which the population overwhelmingly, albeit under conditions akin to martial law, voted in favour of seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.
Russia’s Constitutional Court chairman, Valery Zorkin, said yesterday the treaty signed by Mr Putin has been ruled valid.
Ukraine now plans to seek U.N. support to turn the peninsula into a demilitarised zone.
Andriy Parubiy, secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defence council, also announced Ukraine would hold military manoeuvres with the US and Britain, signatories, along with Russia, of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. He provided no details.
The document was designed to guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity when it surrendered its share of Soviet nuclear arsenals to Russia after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.
Ukraine has accused Russia of breaching the agreement by taking over the Crimean Peninsula.
In Washington, the Pentagon said it would participate as planned in a multinational military exercise this summer in Ukraine.
Dubbed ‘Rapid Trident,’ the ground manoeuvres have been held annually for a number of years with forces from Britain and other Nato countries as well as Ukraine, which has a partner relationship with Nato but is not a member.
The Pentagon gave no details on the number of U.S. forces expected to participate or when the exercises would be held. Last year, the two-week manoeuvres involving 17 nations were held in July.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this morning said the legal process required to make Crimea part of Russia will be completed this week.
‘Practical steps are being taken to implement the agreements on the entry of Crimea and (the Crimean port city of) Sevastopol into Russia,’ Itar-Tass news agency quoted Lavrov as saying. ‘The legal process will be completed this week.’
Russia’s lower house of parliament ratified the treaty on Thursday to make Crimea and Sevastopol regions of Russia. Only one deputy in the State Duma voted against the treaty.
The upper house is also expected to accept the treaty on Friday.
‘From now on, and forever, the Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol will be in the Russian Federation,’ pro-Kremlin lawmaker Leonid Slutsky said in an address before the vote.
It comes as European Union leaders are likely to extend asset freezes and travel bans on key members of the Russian regime, as they meet in Brussels today to discuss tougher sanctions in response to the annexation of Crimea.
In a two-day summit, the EU is also expected to reaffirm its support for the new administration in Kiev by signing political elements of an association agreement with Ukraine.