With their own troops in Crimea effectively prisoners in their
bases, the new authorities in Kiev painted a sorry picture of the
military bequeathed them by the pro-Moscow president overthrown two
weeks ago. They announced the raising of a new National Guard to be
drawn from volunteers among veterans.
The prime minister, heading for talks at the White House and United
Nations, told parliament in Kiev he wanted the United States and
Britain, as guarantors of a 1994 treaty that saw Ukraine give up its
Soviet nuclear weapons, to intervene both diplomatically and
militarily to fend off Russian "aggression".
But despite NATO reconnaissance aircraft patrolling the Polish and
Romanian borders and U.S. naval forces preparing for exercises in
the Black Sea, Western powers have made clear that, as when
ex-Soviet Georgia lost territory in fighting in 2008, they have no
appetite for risking turning the worst East-West crisis since the
Cold War into a military conflict with Moscow.
Diplomacy seemed restricted to a war of words. The U.S. and Russian
foreign ministers did speak by telephone. But the U.S. State
Department said Moscow's position offered no room for negotiation
and the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning U.S.
financial aid to the "illegitimate regime" in Kiev, which it calls
ultra-nationalists with "Nazi" links.
That language echoed ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich,
who gave a news conference in Russia insisting that he was still the
legitimate head of state. Toppled by protests sparked by his
rejection of closer ties with the European Union in favor of a deal
from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yanukovich blamed his enemies
for provoking Crimean secession.
Parliament in Kiev, whose position is backed by Western governments,
dismisses plans for a referendum on Sunday to unite the region with
Russia as illegitimate and resolved on Tuesday to dissolve Crimea's
regional assembly if by Wednesday it had not scrapped the
plebiscite. There seems no chance that it will.
Moscow, which to widespread scorn denies its troops have any role in
the takeover of the once Russian-ruled region, says people in
Crimea, a small majority of whom are ethnic Russians, should have
the right to secede. It has made much of anti-Russian sentiment
among some Ukrainian nationalists — though many native Russian
speakers in Ukraine are wary of Putin.
U.S. lawmakers are preparing sanctions against Russia and European
Union leaders could impose penalties, such as bans on visas for key
officials, as early as Monday.
The chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee said on
Tuesday he would introduce a bill that would include $150 million in
aid for Ukraine, sanctions and backing for a shift in funding for
the International Monetary Fund.
The bill echoes one passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last
week in backing $1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine, but it
would also authorize $50 million for democracy, governance and civil
society assistance, as well as $100 million for enhanced security
cooperation for Ukraine and other states in Central and Eastern
However, by the time the West acts, Crimea could already have voted — in a referendum not recognized by Kiev or the West — to seek union
with Russia. The ballot paper offers no option to retain the status
quo of autonomy within Ukraine.
Voters among the two million population must choose either direct
union with Moscow or restoring an old constitution that made Crimea
sovereign with ties to Ukraine. On Tuesday, the regional assembly
passed a resolution that a sovereign Crimea would sever links to
Kiev and join Russia anyway.
The Russian parliament has already approved the accession in
principle of Crimea, which was handed to Ukraine by Soviet rulers 60
years ago. Still, it is not clear whether or how soon Putin would
formalize such a union as he engages in a complex confrontation with
the West for geostrategic advantage.
In disputes with Georgia, Russia has granted recognition to small
breakaway states on its borders, a process critics view as
annexation in all but name. It fiercely criticized Western
recognition of the independence of Kosovo from its ally Serbia — a
process which Crimea's parliament nonetheless cited as a legal
precedent for its own forthcoming declaration of independence.
There seems little chance that Crimea's new leaders, who emerged
after Yanukovich's overthrow as Russian-backed forces took control
of the peninsula, will fail to get the result they want. A boycott
by ethnic Tatars, 12 percent of the regional population and deeply
wary after centuries of persecution by Moscow, will have little
effect as there is no minimum turnout.
In Sevastopol, the Crimean home port of Russia's Black Sea Fleet,
Valery Medvedev, the chairman of the city's electoral commission,
made no pretence at concealing his own preference:
"We're living through historic times. Sevastopol would love to
fulfil its dream of joining Russia. I want to be part of Russia and
I'm not embarrassed to say that," he told reporters.
There is little sign of campaigning by those opposed to the
government line. Billboards in Sevastopol urge people to vote and
offer a choice of two images of Crimea — one in the colors of the
Russian flag, the other emblazoned with a swastika.
[to top of second column]
It is unclear whether thousands of Ukrainian servicemen, many of
whom are native Crimeans but are effectively trapped on their bases
and ships by Russian troops and local militia allies, will take part
in the referendum.
One sailor, who declined to be named, said he
would only vote if he got the order from his commander to do so, a
position echoed by many other servicemen spoken to by Reuters. They
all said they would vote for Crimea to remain part of Ukraine.
Elena Prokhina, an ethnic Russian planning to vote for union with
Moscow, said she feared the referendum could lead to conflict with
others in Ukraine, notably nationalists in the Ukrainian-speaking
west of the country of 46 million.
"Knowing what I know about the fanaticism of the western Ukrainians,
we will have to defend our rights after the referendum," she said.
"They won't just let us leave."
Around Sevastopol, Ukrainian military facilities remained under
virtual siege on Tuesday. At an air defense base outside Sevastopol,
dozens of men who looked like Russian soldiers were camping outside
the gate, while an armed Ukrainian serviceman could be seen pacing
the base's roof keeping a wary eye on them.
In the port, two Ukrainian warships remained on alert but unable to
set sail because of Russian vessels and a cable strung across the
harbor by Russian forces. Relatives of the sailors come to the
dockside every day to converse and provide food.
A Ukrainian officer said there was a fragile understanding between
the two fleets not to escalate the situation, but he said nerves
were frayed: "The Russians have not troubled us until now," he said.
"But all it takes is one order and they will open fire. We won't be
able to hold out long".
CALL FOR HELP
In parliament, the acting defense minister said that of some 41,000
infantry mobilized last week, Ukraine could field only about 6,000
combat-ready troops, compared with more than 200,000 Russians
deployed on the country's eastern borders. The prime minister said
the air force was outnumbered 100 to one.
Acting president Oleksander Turchinov warned against provoking
Russia, saying that would play into Moscow's hands, as he announced
plans to mobilize a National Guard, though he gave little detail of
its size or expected functions.
Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, who will visit the White House and
United Nations Security Council this week, said the 1994 treaty
under which Ukraine agreed to give up its Soviet nuclear weapons
obliged Russia to remove troops from Crimea and also meant Western
powers should defend Ukraine's sovereignty.
"What does the current military aggression of the Russian Federation
on Ukrainian territory mean?" he said.
"It means that a country which voluntarily gave up nuclear weapons,
rejected nuclear status and received guarantees from the world's
leading countries is left defenseless and alone in the face of a
nuclear state that is armed to the teeth.
"I say this to our Western partners: if you do not provide
guarantees, which were signed in the Budapest Memorandum, then
explain how you will persuade Iran or North Korea to give up their
status as nuclear states."
Parliament passed a resolution he had proposed calling on the United
States and Britain, co-signatories with Russia of that treaty to
"fulfil their obligations ... and take all possible diplomatic,
political, economic and military measures urgently to end the
aggression and preserve the independence, sovereignty and existing
borders of Ukraine".
But Western powers have been careful to note that Ukraine, not being
a member of NATO, has no automatic claim on their help and Ukrainian
officials gave no details on what they hoped for. The wording of the
1994 treaty indicates that help is only required if Ukraine is
threatened by a nuclear attack.
(Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets, Pavel Polityuk, Richard
Balmforth and Ron Popeski in Kiev; writing by Alastair Macdonald;
editing by Peter Graff and Michael Perry)
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