International

Russian forces tighten grip on Crimea

Russians take over additional Ukrainian border post despite US warnings; Ukrainian PM Yatsenyuk to visit US this week

Kiev supporters take part in a rally in Simferopol in Crimea, Ukraine, March 9, 2014.
Thomas Peter/Reuters

Russian forces have tightened their grip on Crimea despite a U.S. warning to Moscow that annexing the southern Ukrainian region would close the door to diplomacy, in a tense East-West standoff.

In the latest armed action, unidentified armed men fired into the air as they moved into a Ukrainian naval post in Crimea on Monday, according to Reuters.

Crimea, a former Russian territory, is home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet and has an ethnic-Russian majority.

Ukraine’s defense minister told Interfax news service on Sunday that although Ukrainian armed forces are doing training exercises, Kiev has no plans to send troops to Crimea, Reuters said.

The White House announced on Sunday that Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk will travel to Washington this week to discuss the Crimea crisis, and the State Department said Monday that a trip by Secretary of State John Kerry to Russia to meet with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is up in the air. The U.S. insists that Russia must first engage "with seriousness" on the conflict.

In a Saturday call between Kerry and Lavrov, Kerry said that the U.S. wants the Russian military to end its advances in Ukraine and halt its drive for annexation of Crimea, the State Department said in a release.

Meanwhile, Obama's Wednesday meeting with Yatsenyuk will focus on options to peacefully resolve the issue of Russia's military intervention, the White House said, adding that the resolution must respect Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

In Simferopol, Crimea's capital, pro- and anti-Russian groups held competing rallies.

About 300 opponents of Russian-backed plans for Crimea to secede gathered around a monument to Ukrainian poet and national hero Taras Shevchenko, carrying blue and yellow balloons the color of the Ukrainian flag. The crowd sang the national anthem twice, and an Orthodox priest led prayers and a hymn.

A referendum asking whether the peninsula should retain ties with Kiev or join the Russian Federation, is due to take place on March 16. Vladimir Kirichenko, 58, an engineer, opposed Crimea's 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?"

And in the port city of Sevastopol, the BBC reported, pro-Russia activists attacked Kiev supporters at a rally with whips.

The violence erupted when pro-Russia groups attacked dozens of people who were guarding a rally to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Shevchenko's birth, the BBC said. 

Ukrainian border guards said Saturday that one of their observation planes came under fire while patrolling the regional border. And the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported warning shots when its observer mission tried to enter the peninsula. Neither reported any injuries.

The Russian operation to occupy Crimea began within days of toppled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's flight from the country last month. Yanukovich was ousted after three months of demonstrations against a decision to spurn a free trade deal with the European Union for closer ties with Russia.

Russian forces' seizure of the Black Sea peninsula has been bloodless, but tensions are mounting after moves by pro-Russia groups that have taken control of the regional parliament to make Crimea part of Russia.

Ukranian border guards said Saturday that one of their observation planes came under fire while patrolling the regional border. And the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported warning shots when its observer mission tried to enter the peninsula. Neither reported any injuries.

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. 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.

 

International fallout

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The U.S. and the European Union have introduced sanctions against Russia in response to its sending troops to Crimea, and Lavrov has warned Kerry that U.S. sanctions could "backfire" and further damage ties between Moscow and Washington.

During a telephone call Friday, Lavrov urged the U.S. not to take "hasty, poorly thought-out steps that could harm Russian-U.S. relations, especially concerning sanctions, which would unavoidably boomerang on the U.S. itself," the statement read.

In a separate statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned the European Union that any sanctions it imposed would not go unanswered and would harm "the interests of the EU itself and its member nations."

Russia is considering a freeze of U.S. military inspections under arms control treaties in retaliation for Washington's decision to halt military cooperation with Russia, news reports said Saturday.

European countries, especially Germany, have been less vocal than the U.S. on sanctions. Polish Prime Minister Doland Tusk on Monday said he blamed Germany's reliance on Russia's natural gas for the country's tepid response to the crisis, saying "Germany's reliance on Russian gas can effectively limit European sovereignty."

Russia's parliament on Friday said it would welcome the addition of Crimea to the Russian Federation if residents approve it in the referendum scheduled for Sunday. "If the people of Crimea make the decision in the referendum to join Russia, we, as the upper house, will of course support such a decision," said Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the Federation Council. On Thursday, Crimea's parliament voted unanimously in favor of joining the Russian Federation

"There are many forces that would like the referendum not to happen, and considering the geopolitical situation, we decided the sooner we are done with this vote, the quieter it will be, and people will feel safer," Crimean Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov, told Al Jazeera on Friday.

"We feel that only people who live in Crimea ... can make the decision about its territory, its taxes and economic situation."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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