Wednesday, 12 March 2014
Russia’s Grip Tightens With Shows Of Force At Ukrainian Bases
CHORNOMORSKOYE, Ukraine -- Russian forces raided a Ukrainian naval missile base here in the darkness of early Monday, scaling its outer walls and outmatching the surprised sailors inside without firing a shot, according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and people familiar with the raid. The seizure was one of a series of swift but thus far bloodless escalations as Russia tightened its grip on Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that the Kremlin is leading toward secession from Ukraine by a combination of military and political moves. Russian forces also infiltrated an air base at Novofedorivka and took up position along a runway; took over a military hospital in the regional capital, Simferopol; and moved onto a Ukrainian base used by a motorized battalion in Bakhchysaray. Russian soldiers penetrated the last base after firing in the air, said Vladislav Seleznev, a Ukrainian military spokesman in Crimea. No one was reported hurt. These emboldened actions played out while diplomacy stalled, with Russia asserting that it cannot accept the “fait accompli” of the new Western-backed government in Ukraine and that Western proposals to defuse the crisis used a “situation created by the coup as a starting point.” That position came in a televised clip showing Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov briefing President Vladimir V. Putin about how Russia was preparing diplomatic counterproposals to serve “the interests of all Ukrainians.” The United States and its allies have joined the Ukrainian government in declaring the Russian occupation of Crimea illegal and a Kremlin-backed referendum on whether Crimea should secede and seek to join Russia, set for Sunday, unconstitutional and nonbonding. The military advances suggested how little influence the Western stance has had on the ground, and on the speed and tactical confidence with which Russia is consolidating its military position. Here in Chornomorskoye, people familiar with the raid said that 200 to 250 Russian soldiers arrived outside the naval base’s walls early Monday morning and quickly scaled the fences and dropped inside. The soldiers, variously described as members of Russian special forces or perhaps a paratrooper unit, rushed the base’s headquarters and seized the checkpoint at its entrance. They carried machine guns, automatic rifles, grenade launchers and sniper rifles, including new sniper rifles often carried by elite Russian units. The Ukrainian naval contingent, perhaps 40 or 50 sailors and officers, belonged to a technical service that manages naval missiles and had only light weapons — mostly pistols and automatic rifles. Outgunned and surprised, they did not resist, people familiar with the raid said. The Russian commander, described as a colonel, announced that “we are soldiers from the Russian Federation” who had come to protect the base and its equipment. There were no further threats and no violence, people familiar with the raid said. By daylight Monday, the Ukrainian sailors had placed their weapons in their armory and had been escorted off their base, leaving behind two officers, including the commander, a navy captain, to continue to negotiate with the occupying force. Russian soldiers, some masked and others showing their faces, had complete control of the base. They could be seen guarding a main entrance beside a Russian military truck and roaming in knots among the buildings visible behind the gate. A fire truck was also placed immediately behind the gate, ready to blast water at any protesting crowds. None appeared. At one point, a lone Ukrainian sailor approached in civilian clothes, pressed his face against the fence and tried to draw the soldiers into an argument. “I serve here,” he said. He made a brief effort to push his way back to his post, but two pro-Russian civilians grabbed him by the back of his collar and shoved him away. The soldiers watched, a few paces away, and chuckled. The apparent noncommissioned officer, who led the soldiers on guard duty, refused to answer questions from two journalists. “No comment,” he said. He added, “We will answer your questions after the referendum.” Russian military forces also surrounded the Southern Naval Base, a Ukrainian installation on Donuzlav Bay, cutting off the troops inside and blocking the Konstantin Olshansky, an amphibious tank landing ship docked there. Last week, the Russians scuttled the Ochakov, a decommissioned ship, in the narrow entrance to the bay, effectively preventing the Konstantin Olshansky from leaving. The Russian soldiers at the base were supported with a backhoe, which they had used to settle in, digging fighting positions and piling a dirt wall around a large canvas tent. Roughly 15 of the soldiers, armed and wearing masks, refused to answer questions and pushed journalists back toward the main road, walking behind them with weapons ready. “Go away,” their leader said. In Chornomorskoye, the situation was tenser. A mix of about 20 local pro-Russian police officials and unidentified men in camouflage and ski masks abruptly intervened in an interview between two reporters and a local man. The men demanded to know if the reporters were pro-Russian, then confiscated their notebooks and tore out any pages with writing on them. “We will translate these,” one of them said, pocketing the pages and handing back the now-blank notebooks. They also examined the photographs in digital cards in a photographer’s cameras. They clustered menacingly around the local man and said, “You keep giving interviews and you will end up in prison in Sevastopol,” the city on the peninsula’s southern shore that part of Russia’s Black Sea fleet uses as a home port. They refused to allow the journalists to leave for about 15 minutes before ordering them to depart the city. The Russian presence has been felt more heavily throughout Crimea as the referendum approaches, with at least five activists and journalists disappearing in the past two days. Kateryna Butko a member of the Kiev-based opposition group AutoMaidan, as well as two journalists, Oleksandra Ryazantseva, an independent blogger, and Olena Maksymenko, a reporter with The Ukrainian Week, were stopped at a checkpoint on the Crimean border. According to witnesses, the women were detained by masked men with guns and made to kneel at the side of the road, before being driven away to an unknown location. On Monday, AutoMaidan activists were searching Simferopol and Sevastopol fruitlessly for the women, who they believe are being held by local security services. Andrei Shchekun and Antatoly Kovalsky, a trustee at a Ukrainian school in Simferopol, also disappeared on Sunday, hours before they were expected to speak at an antisecessionist rally. Mr. Kovalsky’s son said the men were abducted from the city’s train station by members of Russian Unity, the party headed by Crimea’s new separatist leader, Sergei Aksyonov. “He’s been taken by these brigands that call themselves the authorities,” the son, Sergey Kovalsky, said. Other Russian troops could be seen throughout the day and into Monday night, moving methodically down roads in convoys that included BTR armored personnel carriers, mobile electronic warfare vehicles and transport trucks with beds packed with troops in helmets. Their destinations were not clear. In Yevpatoriya, on the peninsula’s west coast, a Ukrainian air defense base was presented an ultimatum in writing from the Russian-backed Crimean authorities, demanding that they set aside their weapons and cede the base by 10 p.m. The deadline passed without incident.