Russia Escalates Situation With Ukraine
By Marie-Louise Gumuchian
(CNN) — Russia’s G8 partners condemned its military build-up in Ukraine as Moscow tightened its grip on the eastern Crimea region despite Western demands that it withdraw.
Amid escalating tensions that have raised fears of a conflict, Ukraine’s new leaders accused Moscow of declaring war, but Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that blood could be spilled amid growing instability in the neighboring nation.
On Sunday, Ukraine’s shaky new government mobilized troops and called up military reservists as officials say signs of Russian military intervention in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula — an autonomous region of eastern Ukraine with strong loyalty to neighboring Russia — are clear.
A senior U.S. administration official told CNN Sunday that Russian forces now “have complete operational control of the Crimean Peninsula.” The official said the U.S. estimates there are 6,000 Russian ground and naval forces in the region.
“There is no question that they are in an occupation position—flying in reinforcements and settling in,” another senior administration official said.
Ukrainian border guards on Monday reported a build-up of armored vehicles on the Russian side of a narrow sea channel dividing Russia and Crimea, Reuters reported citing a border guard spokesman.
He said Russian ships had been moving in and around the port city of Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet has a base, and that Russian forces had blocked mobile telephone services in some areas. The build-up of Russian armor was near a ferry port on the Russian side of the Kerch Channel opposite the Ukrainian city of Kerch.
Unidentified camouflage uniforms
The Ukrainian State Border Security Service said there had been several attacks on border posts in eastern Crimea just along the border with Russia.
In a statement on its website, it said about 100 men, wearing unidentified camouflage uniforms, were carrying out the attacks, such as one on the Kerch border post, where doors and windows were broken, phone lines destroyed late on Sunday.
Also on Sunday night, armed men in unidentified camouflage uniforms tried to enter the arms depot in Ukraine’s Belbek military base near Sevastopol, a defense ministry spokesman said.
Ukrainian forces at the base shot in the air to warn them off but the unidentified men used sound grenades and one of the Ukrainian commanders was wounded as a result, Vladislav Seleznev, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesperson in Crimea, told CNN.
The attackers gained access to the base but Ukrainian troops retain control of the weapons depot and administration building. Seleznev added there have been negotiations.
Men dressed in both civilian and camouflage gear and wearing red armbands have been seen on the streets of the regional capital, Simferopol.
At Ukraine’s Perevalnoye base, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Simferopol on Sunday, a CNN team saw more than 100 troops — not Ukrainian and dressed in black with no identifiable insignia — deployed around its perimeter, as well as a dozen or so vehicles. Some 15 Ukrainian soldiers were on guard while civilians, both pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine protesters, stood on each side of the road.
Earlier on Sunday, Russian generals led their troops to three bases in the region Sunday, demanding Ukrainian forces surrender and hand over their weapons, Seleznyov told CNN.
Speaking by phone, Seleznyov said Russian troops had blocked access to bases but added, “There is no open confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian military forces in Crimea” and said Ukrainian troops continue to protect and serve Ukraine.
The tensions have worried the West and on Sunday Russia’s G8 partners condemned Moscow’s military build-up in Crimea.
The world’s seven major industrialized powers also suspended preparations for the G8 summit in Sochi in June.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to travel to Kiev. He has condemned what he called Russia’s “incredible act of aggression.”
Speaking on the CBS program “Face The Nation,” Kerry said several foreign powers are looking at economic consequences if Russia does not withdraw its forces.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague arrived in the city of Sunday. On Monday, he visited the central Independence Square, cradle of the three-month protests that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych last week, and lay flowers for those who died in clashes between demonstrators and riot police.
U.N Secretary Ban Ki-moon is also despatching an envoy.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office said Russian President Vladimir Putin had accepted a proposal to establish a “fact-finding mission” to Ukraine, possibly under the leadership of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and to start a political dialogue.
On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the phone about the situation in Ukraine. Russia and China have coinciding viewpoints on the situation and will stay in close contact, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
In a post on his official Facebook page, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called Yanukovych’s ouster a “seizure of power.”
“Such a state of order will be extremely unstable,” he said. “It will end with the new revolution. With new blood.”
East vs West
Ukraine, a nation of 45 million people sandwiched between Europe and Russia’s southwestern border, has been plunged into chaos since Yanukovych was ousted on February 22 following bloody street protests that left dozens dead and hundreds wounded.
Anti-government demonstrations started in late November when Yanukovych spurned a deal with the EU, favoring closer ties with Moscow instead.
Ukraine has faced a deepening split, with those in the west generally supporting the interim government and its European Union tilt, while many in the east prefer a Ukraine where Russia casts a long shadow.
Nowhere is that feeling more intense than in Crimea, the last big bastion of opposition to the new political leadership. Ukraine suspects Russia of fomenting tension in the autonomous region that might escalate into a bid for separation by its Russian majority.
Ukrainian leaders and commentators have compared events in Crimea to what happened in Georgia in 2008. Then, cross-border tensions with Russia exploded into a five-day conflict that saw Russian tanks and troops pour into the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as well as Georgian cities. Russia and Georgia each blamed the other for starting the conflict.
The crisis has hit Russian stock markets, with Moscow’s main MICEX index opening some 8 percent lower Monday. The central bank hiked interest rates to 7 percent from 5.5 percent.
CNN’s Alla Eshchenko in Moscow, Rob North in London and journalist Azad Safarov in Kiev contributed to this report