Russia tightens grip on Crimea despite US warning

Tense East-West stand-off continues as Moscow secures 11 border guard posts

Pro-Russian supporters argue with pro-Ukrainean activist during a rally in Sevastopol, Crimea. The USA and European Union have threatened sanctions against Moscow over the military standoff in the strategic Crimean peninsula, and are urging Russia to pull back its forces in the region and allow in international observers and human rights monitors. Crimea, which has a majority ethnic Russian population, is strategically important to Russia as the home port of its Black Sea Fleet. Photograph: Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA

Pro-Russian supporters argue with pro-Ukrainean activist during a rally in Sevastopol, Crimea. The USA and European Union have threatened sanctions against Moscow over the military standoff in the strategic Crimean peninsula, and are urging Russia to pull back its forces in the region and allow in international observers and human rights monitors. Crimea, which has a majority ethnic Russian population, is strategically important to Russia as the home port of its Black Sea Fleet. Photograph: Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA

Sun, Mar 9, 2014, 13:59

Russian forces tightened their grip on Crimea today despite a US warning to Moscow that annexing the southern Ukrainian region would close the door to diplomacy in a tense East-West stand-off.

Russian forces’ seizure of the Black Sea peninsula has been bloodless but tensions are mounting following the decision by pro-Russian groups that have taken over the regional parliament to make Crimea part of Russia.

The operation to seize Crimea began within days of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich’s flight from the country last month. Mr Yanukovich was toppled after three months of demonstrations against a decision to spurn a free trade deal with the European Union for closer ties with Russia.

In the latest armed action, Russians took over a Ukrainian border post on the western edge of Crimea at around 6am, trapping about 30 personnel inside, a border guard spokesman said.

The spokesman, Oleh Slobodyan, said Russian forces now controlled 11 border guard posts across Crimea, a former Russian territory that is home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet and has an ethnic Russian majority.

In Simferopol, Crimea’s main city, pro- and anti-Russian groups held rival rallies. About 300 opponents of Russian-backed plans for Crimea to secede gathered around a monument to national hero Taras Shevchenko, carrying blue and yellow balloons the colour of the Ukrainian flag.

The crowd sang the national anthem, twice, and an Orthodox Priest led prayers and a hymn. Vladimir Kirichenko (58) an engineer, opposed Crimea joining Russia.

“I don’t call this a referendum. It asks two practically identical questions: Are you for the secession of Ukraine or are you for the secession of Ukraine? So why would I go and vote?”

Around 2,000 Russian supporters gathered in Lenin Square, where there is a statue of the Soviet state founder, clapping along to nostalgic Soviet era songs being sung from the stage. Alexander Liganov (25) and jobless, said: “We have always been Russian, not Ukrainian. We support Putin.”

Russian president Vladimir Putin declared a week ago that Russia had the right to invade Ukraine to protect Russian citizens, and his parliament has voted to change the law to make it easier to annex territory inhabited by Russian speakers.

At a rally in the eastern city of Donetsk, home to many Russian speakers, presidential candidate Vitaly Klitschko, a former boxing champion, said Ukraine should not allowed to split apart amid bloodshed. “The main task is to preserve the stability and independence of our country,” he said.

The worst face-off with Moscow since the Cold War has left the West scrambling for a response, especially since the region’s pro-Russia leadership declared Crimea part of Russia last week and announced a March 16th referendum to confirm it.

US secretary of state John Kerry, speaking to Russia’s foreign minister for the fourth day in a row, told Sergei Lavrov yesterday that Russia should exercise restraint. “He made clear that continued military escalation and provocation in Crimea or elsewhere in

Ukraine, along with steps to annex Crimea to Russia, would close any available space for diplomacy, and he urged utmost restraint,” a US official said.

US President Barack Obama spoke by phone on Saturday to the leaders of France, Britain and Italy and three ex-Soviet Baltic states that have joined Nato.

He assured Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which have their own ethnic Russian populations, that the Western military alliance would protect them if necessary.

A spokeswoman for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said military monitors from the pan-Europe watchdog had on Saturday been prevented for the third time in as many days from entering Crimea.

Shots were fired on Saturday to turn back the mission of more than 40 unarmed observers, who have been invited by Kiev but lack permission from Crimea’s pro-Russian authorities to cross the isthmus to the peninsula. No on was hurt.

Crimea’s pro-Moscow authorities have ordered all remaining Ukrainian troop detachments in the province to disarm and surrender, but at several locations they have refused to yield.

Moscow denies that the Russian-speaking troops in Crimea are under its command, an assertion Washington dismisses as “Putin’s fiction”. Although they wear no insignia, the troops drive vehicles with Russian military plates. A Reuters reporting team filmed a convoy of hundreds of Russian troops in about 50 trucks, accompanied by armoured vehicles and ambulances, which pulled into a military base north of Simferopol in broad daylight on Saturday.

The military standoff has remained bloodless, but troops on both sides spoke of increased agitation. “The situation is changed. Tensions are much higher now. You have to go. You can’t film here,” said a Russian soldier carrying a heavy machine gun, his face covered except for his eyes, at a Ukrainian navy base in Novoozernoye. A source in Ukraine’s defence ministry said it was mobilising some of its military hardware for a planned exercise, Interfax news agency reported.

Ukraine’s military, with barely 130,000 troops, would be no match for Russia’s. So far Kiev has held back from any action that might provoke a response. Reuters