Stand-off at Ukranian missile post resolved

Ukraine says Moscow has 30,000 troops in Black Sea region

A uniformed man, believed to be a Russian serviceman, stands guard near a Ukrainian military base outside the city of Sevastopol today. Photograph: Reuters

A uniformed man, believed to be a Russian serviceman, stands guard near a Ukrainian military base outside the city of Sevastopol today. Photograph: Reuters

 

Armed men thought to be Russians drove a truck into a Ukrainian missile-defence post in the Crimea region today but a standoff was resolved without a shot being fired, witness said.

Initial reports said the truck had smashed through the gates of the base in the port city of Sevastopol and that it was being stormed, but a Reuters reporter on the scene could not see any signs of major damage to the gates and the base was quiet.

Crimea’s pro-Russia premier, Sergei Aksyonov, was asked about the incident during a political chat show shown live on Ukrainian television and said all was calm at the military post.

Referring to the armed men as “self-defence units, he indicated the standoff was over, adding: “Now the self-defence units are surrounded by journalists. There are no attempts to attack.”

A Ukrainian military official told Reuters at the post that the armed group inside had not seized any weapons.

Russian forces have taken over some military installations and other buildings on the peninsula, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has a base, but both sides have held their fire.

Earlier, president Vladimir Putin rebuffed a warning from US president Barack Obama over military intervention in Crimea, saying Moscow could not ignore calls for help from Russian speakers in Ukraine.

After an hour-long telephone call, Mr Putin said in a statement that Moscow and Washington were still far apart on the situation in the former Soviet republic, where he said the new authorities had taken “absolutely illegitimate decisions on the eastern, southeastern and Crimea regions.

“Russia cannot ignore calls for help and it acts accordingly, in full compliance with international law,” Mr Putin said.

Ukraine’s border guards said Moscow had poured troops into the southern peninsula where Russian forces have seized control.

Serhiy Astakhov, an aide to the border guards’ commander, said there were now 30,000 Russian soldiers in Crimea, compared to 11,000 permanently based with the Russian Black Sea fleet in the port of Sevastopol before the crisis.

Mr Putin denies that the forces with no national insignia that are surrounding Ukrainian troops in their bases are under Moscow’s command, although their vehicles have Russian military plates. The West has ridiculed this claim.

The most serious east-west confrontation since the end of the Cold War - resulting from the overthrow last month of president Viktor Yanukovich after violent protests in Kiev - escalated yesterday when Crimea’s parliament, dominated by ethnic Russians, voted to join Russia. The region’s government set a referendum for March 16th.

European Union leaders and Mr Obama denounced the referendum as illegitimate, saying it would violate Ukraine’s constitution.

The head of Russia’s upper house of parliament said after meeting visiting Crimean MPs today that Crimea had a right to self-determination, and ruled out any risk of war between “the two brotherly nations”.

Before calling Mr Putin, Mr Obama announced the first sanctions against Russia since the start of the crisis, ordering visa bans and asset freezes against so far unidentified persons deemed responsible for threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Japan endorsed the Western position that the actions of Russia, whose forces have seized control of the Crimean peninsula, constitute “a threat to international peace and security”, after Mr Obama spoke to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

China, often a Russian ally in blocking Western moves in the UN Security Council, was more cautious, saying that economic sanctions were not the best way to solve the crisis and avoiding comment on the legality of a Crimean referendum on secession.

The EU, Russia’s biggest economic partner and energy customer, adopted a three-stage plan to try to force a negotiated solution but stopped short of immediate sanctions.

The Russian Foreign Ministry responded angrily today, calling the EU decision to freeze talks on visa-free travel “extremely unconstructive” and warning that Moscow would retaliate against any sanctions.

Brussels and Washington also rushed to strengthen the new authorities in economically shattered Ukraine, announcing both political and financial assistance.

Promises of billions of dollars in Western aid for the Kiev government, and the perception that Russian troops are not likely to go beyond Crimea into other parts of Ukraine, have helped reverse a rout in the local hryvnia currency.

In the past two days it has traded above 9.0 to the dollar for the first time since the Crimea crisis began last week. Local dealers said emergency currency restrictions imposed last week were also supporting the hryvnia.

In their telephone call, Mr Obama said he urged Mr Putin to accept the terms of a potential diplomatic solution to the dispute over Crimea that would take account of Russia’s legitimate interests in the region.

Mr Putin was defiant on Ukraine, where he said the pro-Russian Mr Yanukovich had been ousted in an “anti-constitutional coup”. But he underlined what he called “the paramount important of Russian-American relations to ensure stability and security in the world”, the Kremlin said.

“These relations should not be sacrificed for individual differences, albeit very important ones, over international problems,” Mr Putin said.

The 28-member EU welcomed Ukrainian prime minister Arseny Yatseniuk to an emergency summit, even though Kiev is neither a member nor a recognised candidate to join the union, and agreed to bring forward the signing of the political parts of an agreement on closer ties before Ukraine’s May 25th elections.

Mr Yatseniuk said after returning to Ukraine that no one in the civilized world would recognise the result of the “so-called referendum” in Crimea. He repeated Kiev’s willingness to negotiate with Russia and said he had requested a telephone call with Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev.

The European Commission said Ukraine could receive up to €11 billion in the next couple of years provided it reaches agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which requires painful economic reforms like ending gas subsidies.