11:12 pm - Saturday November 7, 2015

In Ukraine and West, concerns grow over Russia’s plans

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Kiev, Ukraine –  The besieged new government of Ukraine accused Russian forces of a major escalation in pressure over control of the Crimea on Monday night, saying the Russians had demanded that Ukrainian forces there surrender within hours or face armed assault. (Russia gives Ukraine forces ultimatum to surrender in Crimea)

Russia denied it had issued any ultimatum but was clearly moving to strengthen its grip on Crimea, brushing aside new admonitions from U.S. President Barack Obama and European leaders of economic punishment and isolation. (Russia dismisses Crimea ultimatum claims as ‘nonsense’)

At the United Nations, where the Security Council met for the third time in emergency session since Friday, the Ukraine ambassador, Yuriy Sergeyev, distributed a three-page letter asserting that Russia had sent 16,000 troops into the Crimean peninsula since Feb. 24. The troops, Sergeyev wrote, had moved to “seize, block and control crucial governmental and military objects of Ukraine in Crimea.” (US suspends military cooperation with Russia: Pentagon)

The Interfax-Ukrainian news agency quoted an unidentified Ukrainian Defense Ministry official as saying Russia’s Black Sea Fleet commander had set a deadline of 5 a.m. Tuesday – 10 p.m. Monday Eastern time – for Ukrainian forces stationed in Crimea to lay down their weapons. Russia’s Interfax news agency said the Black Sea Fleet had no such plans.

The conflicting reports only further served to worsen tensions in the Ukraine crisis, which has grown drastically in scope within the past few weeks to a new confrontation between Russia and the West reminiscent of low points in the Cold War.

Obama, who spent much of the weekend working on the crisis, issued a new warning on the consequences to the Kremlin. (Pressures to respond forcefully mount as Obama works to rein in Russia)

“What we are also indicating to the Russians is that if, in fact, they continue on the current trajectory that they’re on, that we are examining a whole series of steps – economic, diplomatic – that will isolate Russia and will have a negative impact on Russia’s economy and its status in the world,” he said.

EU foreign ministers, condemning Russia’s actions, called on Moscow to return its troops to their bases. EU heads of government will meet in an emergency summit meeting Thursday to discuss further steps. The foreign ministers threatened to freeze visa liberalization and economic cooperation talks with Russia and boycott a Group of 8 summit in Sochi if Moscow did not take steps to “de-escalate” the situation by the Thursday summit.

Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, explained: “The EU is saying that it will revise its relations with Russia if there is no de-escalation.”

NATO also called its second emergency meeting on Ukraine in response to a request from Poland under Article 4 of the NATO treaty, which concerns threats to a member state’s security and independence.

Visiting the new government in Kiev, British Foreign Secretary William Hague urged Russia to pull back its forces in Crimea or face “significant costs,” echoing comments made by Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was due here Tuesday.

Hague also emphasized diplomacy. “The world cannot just allow this to happen,” he told the BBC. “The world cannot say it’s OK in effect to violate the sovereignty of another nation in this way.”

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei V. Lavrov, responded that Russia was only protecting its interests and those of Russian citizens in Ukraine. In a Geneva speech, Lavrov broke from his text to say: “Those who try to interpret the situation as an act of aggression, threaten us with sanctions and boycotts, are the same partners who have been consistently and vigorously encouraging the political powers close to them to declare ultimatums and renounce dialogue, to ignore the concerns of the south and east of Ukraine, and consequently to the polarization of the Ukrainian society.”

The use of Russian troops is necessary “until the normalization of the political situation” in Ukraine, Lavrov said at an opening of a monthlong session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. “We are talking here about protection of our citizens and compatriots, about protection of the most fundamental of the human rights – the right to live, and nothing more.” But he did not specify what threats Russian citizens faced from Ukraine.

With the new Kiev government confronted with the loss of Crimea and a worsening economic situation, a team from the International Monetary Fund was scheduled to arrive Tuesday for a 10-day investigation of the true state of Ukraine’s finances. The government has said it is prepared to take difficult economic reform measures if necessary to secure a stabilization loan from the fund.

Moscow suspended its offer of bond purchases when President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted more than a week ago.

Although Crimea was relatively calm Monday, Russian forces tightened their grip on key military bases and other security facilities throughout the peninsula, including naval installations and outposts of the border police, and stepped up pressure on Ukrainian officials to declare their loyalty to pro-Russian authorities.

At the Azov-Black Sea regional headquarters of the border police in Simferopol, the Crimean regional capital, a half-dozen men in plainclothes, some wearing face-masks but carrying military radios, stood guard outside the front door, where the glass had been smashed out during a siege of the building Sunday.

At least three large Russian troop carriers were parked outside the building. Although most identifying markers had been removed, one of the trucks bore a black Russian military license plate carried by vehicles attached to the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol.

The men at the door refused to identify themselves and did not permit visitors to enter the building. Andrei Bazan, a spokesman for the border patrol, held a news conference on the sidewalk because he was barred from bringing a small group of journalists inside.

Bazan said the border police continued to perform their duties, and insisted that nothing all that unusual had transpired, even though some men appeared to be removing uniforms and equipment from the building, including a television set.

“They don’t work here, but today they help, they control things,” Bazan said. Speaking in Russian, he insisted that he did not know who the men were that guarded the front door. “They speak the same language as I do,” Bazan said. “But I don’t know where they are from.”

He added, “I don’t consider this a strange situation. At the very least, there was no force. They didn’t beat anyone or mess anyone up.”

In Donetsk, however, in eastern Ukraine, Yanukovych’s native region, a large pro-Russian demonstration led to some violence. About 1,000 pro-Russian demonstrators occupied the first floor of the regional government building that has been flying the Russian flag for several days. The protesters, waving Russian flags and shouting “Putin, come!” were unable to go higher because elevators were disabled and stairwell doors shut. They had entered through a side door after confronting police, who were guarding the front entrance.

The rally seemed the latest in a series in eastern cities that Kiev says are encouraged or even organized by Russia. Most people in the region are ethnic Ukrainians who speak Russian as their native language.

The Donetsk protest leader, Pavel Gubarev, demanded that the Parliament in Kiev be declared illegitimate, a pro-Russian governor be accepted in Donetsk and all security forces be put under regional command, much as has happened in Crimea.

In a statement Monday night, Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, said officers in Crimea had high morale and would defend themselves if necessary.

“Nobody will ever give up Crimea,” he said.

He took no questions and did not mention reports of a Russian ultimatum, but said he had spoken Monday with the commanders of army and marine bases on the Crimean peninsula and with the captains of Ukrainian naval ships blockaded in the Sevastopol harbor. He thanked the officers for resisting what he called “provocations” to fight by Russian soldiers.

But he described in detail a conversation with the captain and first mate of the Ternopol, a corvette in Ukraine’s navy, indicating commanders had been threatened with attack.

“A very dangerous situation emerged around the Ukrainian navy,” he said. “Russian servicemen have blockaded our naval ships in Sevastopol Bay, they have blocked the exits. Today, threats are coming, saying if the sailors do not surrender the ships and lay down their arms, they will attack our naval vessels.”

Of the conversation with the commanding officers and captain of the blockaded Ternopol, whom Turchynov identified only by his surname, Capt. Kirilov, he said he was told they intended to fight, the same way as anti-Yanukovych protesters in central Kiev did battle last month.

“How could we not take their example?” Turchynov quoted the captain as saying. “Will we give up our ship to pirates who constantly threaten us?'”

“The commanders and sailors are prepared to defend their ships, because they defend Ukraine, because the aggression against our state should be stopped,” Turchynov said.

The uncertainty hit the Russian stock market and the ruble hard Monday morning. The Russian central bank raised its key lending rate 1.5 percentage points after the ruble fell 2.5 percent against the dollar at the opening of exchange trading Monday, while the MICEX index of Moscow stocks sank 11 percent. Russian gas monopoly Gazprom, which supplies Europe through Ukraine, was down more than 13 percent in early trading.

On Sunday, Ukraine’s government worked to stem protests in the east, recruiting wealthy eastern businessmen to become provincial governors in an effort to dampen secessionist sentiment there.

In Kharkiv, the eastern city that is the country’s second-largest, a sprawling pro-Russian protest camp occupied the central square, and Russian flags were on display. Many said they would even prefer that Russian troops invade the city, just 20 miles from the border, instead of submitting to Kiev’s rule.

“I would welcome them with flowers,” said Alexander Sorokin, 55, a pensioner walking by a phalanx of riot police officers guarding the administration building in Kharkiv. “We do not want to spill blood, but we are willing to do so.”

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