Members of a pro-Russian self defence unit stand in formation as they take an oath to the Crimea government in Simferopol on Saturday. (Reuters)
Kiev/Sevastopol (Ukraine), March 8 (Reuters): Warning shots were fired to prevent an unarmed international military observer mission from entering Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Crimea today, as new confrontations between Russian and Ukrainian troops raised tension ever higher.
Russia’s seizure of the Black Sea peninsula, which began about 10 days ago, has so far been bloodless, but its forces have become increasingly aggressive towards Ukrainian troops, who are trapped in bases and have offered no resistance.
Tempers have grown hotter in the last two days, since the region’s pro-Moscow leadership declared it part of Russia and announced a March 16 referendum to confirm it.
A spokeswoman for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said no one was hurt when shots were fired to turn back its mission of more than 40 unarmed observers, who have been invited by Kiev but do not have permission from Crimea’s pro-Russian separatist regional authorities.
They had been turned back twice before, but this was the first time shots were fired.
Kiev’s security council said it had been targeted by hackers in a “massive” denial of service attack designed to cripple its computers. The national news agency was also hit, it said.
President Vladimir Putin declared a week ago that Russia had the right to invade Ukraine to protect Russian citizens, and his parliament has voted to change the law to make it easier to annex territory.
The pro-Moscow authorities have ordered all remaining Ukrainian troop detachments in Crimea to disarm and surrender, but at several locations they have refused to yield.
Overnight, Russian troops drove a truck into a missile defence post in Sevastopol, the home of both their Black Sea Fleet and the Ukrainian navy, and took control of it. A Reuters reporting team at the scene said no one was hurt.
Ukraine’s border service said Russian troops had also seized a border guard outpost in the east of the peninsula overnight, kicking the Ukrainian officers and their families out of their apartments in the middle of the night.
“The situation is changed. Tensions are much higher now. You have to go. You can’t film here,” said a Russian soldier carrying a heavy machinegun, his face covered except for his eyes, at a Ukrainian navy base in Novozernoye.
About 100 armed Russians are keeping watch over the Ukrainians at the base, where a Russian ship has been scuttled at the entrance to keep the Ukrainians from sailing out.
“Things are difficult and the atmosphere has got worse. The Russians threaten us when we go and get food supplies and point their guns at us,” said Vadim Filipenko, the Ukrainian deputy commander at the base.
Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski said today Poland had evacuated its consulate in Sevastopol due to “continuing disturbances by Russian forces”.
Moscow denies that the Russian-speaking troops in Crimea are under its command, an assertion Washington dismisses as “Putin’s fiction”. Although they wear no insignia, the troops drive vehicles with Russian military plates and identify themselves as Russian troops to the besieged Ukrainian forces.
A Reuters reporting team saw a convoy of hundreds of Russian troops in about 50 troop trucks, accompanied by armoured vehicles and ambulances, pull into a military base near Simferopol today.
The US has announced sanctions against individuals it blames for interfering with Ukrainian territorial integrity, although it has yet to publish the list.
The EU is also considering sanctions, but this may be much harder to organise for a 28-member bloc that must take decisions unanimously and depends on Russian natural gas. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov gave no indication of any softening of Moscow’s position today, insisting that the government in Kiev had been installed in an illegal coup.
Pro-Moscow Crimea leader Sergei Aksyonov said the referendum on union with Russia — due in a week — would not be stopped. It had been called so quickly to avert “provocation”, he said.
“There are many hotheads who are trying to create a destabilised situation in the autonomous republic of Crimea, and because the life and safety of our citizens is the most valuable thing, we have decided to curtail the duration of the referendum and hold it as soon as possible,” he told Russian television.