Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

Russian forces move on Crimea air base, European monitors head to Ukraine

OSCE mission will observe security situation, but likely won't be allowed in Crimea where Belbek Air Base is under siege

Russian troops stormed the Belbek Air Base in Crimea Saturday, firing shots and stun grenades and smashing through concrete walls with armored personnel carriers, disarming Ukrainian troops stationed there and taking the base commander for "talks," Reuters reported. At least one person was injured, according to The Associated Press.

The Ukrainian commander of the base, Col. Yuliy Mamchur, confirmed there was at least one injury. He called his men together, they sang the Ukrainian national anthem and then stood at ease. He then told his men to put their weapons in the base's armory.

The men who stormed the base didn't wear any insignia, the AP reported. A Defense Ministry spokesman, Vladislav Seleznyov, said on Facebook that they were part of the local militias that have been formed over the past several weeks, but their machine guns and armored carriers appeared to indicate a military connection. 

Also Saturday, Ukraine's naval base at Novofedorovka, near Sevastopol, was vacated after unarmed pro-Russian protesters attempted to force their way in, Seleznyov said in a Facebook post. He said the Ukrainians had first repelled the protesters with smoke bombs but then left of their own volition.

In Moscow on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed legislation that formally sealed Crimea's annexation, less than a week after a referendum where the residents of the region overwhelmingly voted to join Russia.

Ukraine's Defense Ministry said Friday that Crimea's bases were still formally under Ukrainian control, but most are now occupied by Russian troops and fly Russia's tricolor flag. On Friday, extravagant firework displays were staged in Crimea and Moscow to mark the formal unification of the peninsula with Russia, which Kiev and Western leaders have refused to recognize and have answered with sanctions. 

Sanctions imposed this week by the U.S. and the European Union, however, haven't persuaded Russia to back off on its decision to annex Crimea.

Timothy Frye, Director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, told Al Jazeera on Saturday that the developments in Crimea are a result of Putin trying to "make the best of a bad situation."

"I think what he really wanted was a friendly government in Kiev and to have President (Viktor) Yanukovich in power and not be overthrown, not face the international sanctions and all the reputational costs that go along with annexing territory," Frye told Al Jazeera's Jonathan Betz.  

Frye said he believes that Russia's moves have mostly been maneuvers to create a weak and divided government in Ukraine.

"I think what would be ideal for President Putin at this point would be to continue to exert leverage over the government in Kiev by the threat of, say, introducing irregular forces into eastern Ukraine or stirring up trouble in eastern Ukraine that would keep the government in Kiev weak and divided so that in the future when a new government comes to power, he might be in a better position to negotiate." 

EU monitoring mission

Russia's continued consolidation of military positions in the Black Sea peninsula occurred just hours after its foreign ministry said that it hopes a planned European monitoring mission will help ease tensions in Ukraine.

The statement came after Russia accepted the deployment of an international monitoring team to Ukraine that officials said will have free access to regions across the country, but a senior Russian envoy said that doesn't include Crimea, which Moscow now claims as its own.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement Friday that Moscow hopes that the 200-strong team of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe "will help to overcome the internal Ukrainian crisis" and ensure the respect for human rights there.

Pro-Russian forces last week stopped OSCE military observers from entering Crimea. The organization on Friday did not specify whether the observers will go to Crimea. U.S. chief envoy Daniel Baer said the observers should have access to the territory because Crimea remains Ukrainian to the rest of the world.

Russia’s Lukashevich insisted Saturday that the OSCE's mission "will reflect the new political and legal order and will not cover Crimea and Sevastopol which became part of Russia."

The acceptance of monitors followed more than a week of stonewalling by Russia in the face of a push by all other members of the 57-nation OSCE to send such a mission, which they hope will prevent an escalation of tensions in Ukraine's east and south — regions that have large Russian-speaking populations.

The agreement calls for advance teams to be deployed within 24 hours. The mission, which has a six-month mandate, initially will consist of 100 observers. Up to 400 extra monitors could be deployed if necessary.

The OSCE said the civilian observer team will gather information and report on the security situation "throughout the country."

In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that although the decision on the monitors is "not the end of the crisis ... it is a step that helps support our efforts toward de-escalation."

Two previous observer teams — unarmed military missions — didn't need Russian approval because they were asked for by Ukraine under a special provision exempting them from the normal OSCE decision process. They returned without carrying out their mission of monitoring Crimea after repeatedly being stopped from entering over the past two weeks by pro-Russian forces.

U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic arrived in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, Friday on a two-day visit to lay the groundwork for a U.N. human rights monitoring mission in the peninsula, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

The U.N. has four international monitors and seven national monitors in Ukraine — a number that will increase — and is already operating in two major cities in the pro-Russian east, Donetsk and Kharkiv, Dujarric said.

Ukraine was engulfed in anti-government rallies for three months before pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich fled the country and the interim government in Kiev was appointed. Elections are scheduled for May.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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