Western nations sought a political and economic response to the crisis in Ukraine Monday as Russia strengthened its hold on Crimea and more pro-Russian demonstrations were taking place in the big cities of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
There were unconfirmed reports the commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, headquartered in the Crimea port of Sevastopol, had ordered Ukrainian forces in Crimea to surrender by 5 am Tuesday local time — 10 pm Monday Eastern Standard Time — or face assault by Russian forces. But Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a conflicting statement, saying the Black Sea Fleet was not involved.
The EU foreign ministers met in emergency session in Brussels to discuss possible punitive steps against Russia unless it pulled its troops back to its own bases in Crimea, including suspension of talks with Moscow on visa liberalization. But France and Germany said sanctions were not on the table, urging dialogue first.
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 President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who was due here Tuesday.
Hague also emphasized diplomacy. “The world cannot just allow this to happen,” he told BBC. “The world cannot say it’s OK in effect to violate the sovereignty of another nation in this way.”
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V Lavrov, responded that Russia was only protecting its interests and those of Russian citizens in Ukraine. The use of Russian troops is necessary “until the normalization of the political situation” in Ukraine, he said at an opening of a monthlong session of the United Nations 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.
Crimea was relatively calm, with Russian forces continuing their military standoffs around Ukrainian bases to neutralize them and seek their surrender. The Ukrainian military personnel were effectively hostages, hemmed in by Russian troops.
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 already been flying the Russian flag for several days. The protesters, waving Russian flags and shouting, “Putin, come!”, were unable to go higher because lifts 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.
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 already in Crimea.
In Sevastopol, at the headquarters of Ukraine’s naval forces, six heavily armed men in unmarked uniforms and masks stood outside, cheered on by locals waving Russian flags and loudly proclaiming loyalties.