Russian troops backed by unarmed volunteers stormed Ukraine's naval headquarters in the Crimean port of Sevastopol and raised the Russian flag as Moscow tightened its control of the Black Sea peninsula
SEVASTOPOL – The dramatic seizure came as Russia and the West dug in for a long confrontation over Moscow's annexation of Crimea, with the United States and Europe groping for ways to increase pressure on the defiant Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian lawmakers raced to ratify a treaty making the Ukrainian region part of Russia by the end of the week, despite threats of further sanctions from Washington and Brussels. The Russian military moved swiftly to neutralize any threat of armed resistance in Crimea.
"This morning they stormed the compound. They cut the gates open, but I heard no shooting," said Oleksander Balanyuk, a captain in the Ukrainian navy, walking out of the compound in his uniform and carrying his belongings. "This thing should have been solved politically.
Now all I can do is stand here at the gate. There is nothing else I can do," he told Reuters, appearing ashamed and downcast.
Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said the commander of the Ukrainian navy, Admiral Serhiy Haiduk, was driven away by what appeared to be Russian Special Forces.
Russia sent thousands of soldiers to Crimea in the buildup to a weekend referendum in which the Russian-majority region voted overwhelmingly to leave Ukraine and join Moscow, reflecting national loyalties and hopes of higher wages.
Putin said his move to annex Crimea was justified by "fascists" in Kiev who overthrew pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych after deadly street protests last month.
Ukraine and Western governments have dismissed the referendum as a sham, and say there is no justification for Putin's actions.
Yanukovych enraged many Ukrainians by turning his back on closer ties with Europe to sign agreements on economic integration with former Soviet overlord Russia.
Germany's cabinet approved EU plans for closer political cooperation with Ukraine, a government source said, clearing the way for Chancellor Angela Merkel to sign part of a socalled association agreement at an EU summit later this week.
The 28-member bloc is expected to sign a more far-reaching trade accord with Ukraine later. But maintaining aggressive rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War, Russia accused Western states of violating a pledge to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and political independence under a 1994 security assurance agreement, saying they had "indulged a coup d'état" that ousted Yanukovych.
Moscow, which has said it will retaliate for so-far largely symbolic Western sanctions targeting Russian officials announced on Wednesday it was closing its military facilities in a European security watchdog for the rest of the year. U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden was in Lithuania to round off a lightning visit intended to reassure Baltic and east European NATO allies that Washington will stand by them after Moscow's action in the neighboring former Soviet republic.
In Warsaw on Tuesday, Biden said the United States may run more ground and naval military exercises to help Baltic states near Russia beef up their capacity after what he called Putin's "land grab" in Ukraine.
Washington and Brussels said further sanctions would follow the visa bans and asset freezes imposed so far on a handful of Russian and Crimean officials, drawing derision from Moscow. On a visit to Japan, which has joined the Western chorus of condemnation of Moscow's action, close Putin ally Igor Sechin, CEO of Russian oil major Rosneft, said expanding sanctions would only aggravate the crisis. European Union leaders will consider widening the number of people targeted by personal sanctions when they hold a regular summit in Thursday and Friday, diplomats said, as well as signing the political part of an association agreement with Ukraine's interim government.
Britain warned Putin on Wednesday that Russia could face permanent exclusion from the G-8 if the Kremlin took further steps against Ukraine. "I think we should be discussing whether or not to expel Russia permanently from the G-8 if further steps are taken," Prime Minister David Cameron told the British parliament.
The United States and its G-7 allies will gather next week at The Hague without Russia, to consider a further response to the Kremlin's moves to annex Ukraine's Crimea region. The EU agreed earlier this week to impose asset freezes and travel bans on 21 individuals linked to the action in Crimea.
Meanwhile, a Ukrainian serviceman was killed on Tuesday at a Ukrainian base that came under attack in Crimea's main town Simferopol, the first death on the peninsula from a military clash since the region came under Russian control three weeks ago.
Defying Ukrainian protests and Western sanctions, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty in Moscow on Tuesday making Crimea part of Russia again but said he did not plan to seize any other regions of Ukraine.
About the author
Research Associate at Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University