Ukraine control of bases erodes
SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine — Russia and its sympathizers seized control of more Ukrainian military bases and facilities in Crimea on Monday while Moscow issued threatening statements about eastern Ukraine that signaled Russia's intention to play a significant role in the country's future.
At least four Ukrainian military bases, including one stocked with missiles, were overrun by armed men in uniforms who say they are locals in self-defense units that are typically under the command of Russian military officers. Electricity was cut to the headquarters of the Ukrainian naval fleet, and the director of a military hospital was ousted, with a replacement installed by the pro-Russian militia that took over.
A foreboding sense of lawlessness is spreading in advance of a referendum to align with Russia that has been scheduled for Sunday. Several activists critical of Russia's presence in Crimea were reported missing. Residents of the regional capital of Simferopol reported being visited by members of committees who stole or destroyed their passports required as identification to vote.
Crimean officials are acting as if Sunday's referendum is a foregone conclusion. On a website, the Crimean parliament started to drum up support for the referendum; an online poll showed that votes to go with Russia outnumber votes to stick with Ukraine by a margin of almost three to one. Every article on the site offered a positive spin to a union with Russia, such as one describing the thousands of Russian tourists eager to vacation in Crimea.
Geoffrey Pyatt, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said at a news conference in Kiev that the United States will not recognize the results of the referendum.
“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.
Even as Russia tightened its grip on the peninsula that is still officially part of Ukraine, it seems to be looking beyond Crimea.
First it suggested that Ukraine's new pro-Western government in Kiev was not protecting pro-Russian citizens in eastern Ukraine and was sowing “chaos.” That was an echo of accusations it has made to justify its intervention in Crimea and represents a possible pretext to intervene further in Ukraine.
Later in the day, Russian television showed Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov telling President Vladimir Putin that proposals from the United States for resolving the Ukrainian crisis were not acceptable because they recognized the legitimacy of the Kiev government. Russia has declared the government illegal, saying it rose to power in a coup that overthrew Viktor Yanukovych.
The two met in Sochi, where Putin was attending the Winter Paralympics. Lavrov said that Secretary of State John Kerry had agreed to visit Sochi for consultations but decided on Saturday to postpone the trip. Russia, Lavrov said, would come up with its own proposals, rooted in an agreement reached on Feb. 21 that fell apart when protesters rejected it because it would keep Yanukovych in office until December.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “The United States needs to see concrete evidence that Russia is prepared to engage on the diplomatic proposals we have made” before negotiating further.
“The idea is to bring the situation back into the framework of international law with due account taken of the interests of all Ukrainians without exception,” Lavrov told Putin.
Earlier in the day, Lavrov's foreign ministry issued a statement accusing masked men of firing at peaceful protesters in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
“Russia is outraged by the chaos, which is currently ruling in eastern regions of Ukraine as a result of the actions of militants of the so-called Right Sector amid utter connivance of the new authorities, as they call themselves,” the statement said.
Witnesses have described very different scenarios, accusing pro-Russian demonstrators of attacking Ukrainian loyalists. Pro-Russian sentiment runs high in eastern Ukraine, as it does in Crimea.
A student in Kharkiv who has been monitoring events there said that on Saturday, some cars drew up at the Vladimir Lenin monument in Freedom Square, the site of an ongoing demonstration against Kiev protesters. Several people got out, waving Ukrainian and European flags, and started arguing with the demonstrators. One of the men from the cars fired a pistol in the air before driving away. No one was injured, according to the student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
In a second incident on Saturday evening, masked men accosted a group of three anti-Kiev protesters and shot and wounded one of them.
On Monday, Vitaly Klitschko, a boxer who helped lead the protests against Yanukovych and who is running for president, visited Kharkiv, addressed a pro-Kiev crowd and was pelted with eggs by pro-Russian demonstrators.
People in Kharkiv don't want to be absorbed into Russia, the student said, but he acknowledged there is resentment that the new government in Kiev has not taken east Ukraine into account.
Any ambiguity about who is in control of Crimea is lost on the ground. It is not the Ukrainian government.
Vladislav Seleznyov, a Ukrainian Defense Department spokesman in Crimea, said 200 armed men in uniform arrived in 14 trucks about 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 they stored their weapons in an arsenal on the base and left, Seleznyov said.
Similar reports of takeovers arrived from other Ukrainian military installations, including a navy facility for radio communications near the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, a military hospital in the regional capital of Simferopol and two bases around the Tatar village of Bakhchysaray, Seleznyov said.
Amid the escalating tensions, NATO officials said the alliance would begin to fly reconnaissance missions over Poland and Romania to peer into Ukraine. While such flights are fairly routine, the announcement appeared calculated to remind Russia that its actions are being watched.