A man pastes a poster over one calling the people to vote against fascism in a referendum in Sevastopol, Crimea. (Reuters)
London, March 10: Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, was reported today to be pursuing a high-profile diplomatic offensive in the US and at the UN as a referendum approaches in his country’s southern region of Crimea that could herald its secession.
At the same time, Russian troops who have swept into control of many military installations in Crimea were reported to be tightening their grip on the peninsula, taking over a military hospital in the regional capital, Simferopol, and a military base in Sevastopol, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based.
There were signals, too, that the Kremlin was focusing closely on events in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian feeling runs high. According to news reports, the foreign ministry in Moscow said lawlessness now rules in eastern Ukraine as a result of extreme rightists “with the full connivance” of the authorities who took over after the ouster of President Viktor F. Yanukovich.
In Russia, foreign minister Sergey V. Lavrov, said that secretary of state John Kerry had postponed a trip to Moscow today to discuss Russia’s reply to American proposals for a solution of the Ukraine crisis.
In a meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin, broadcast on television, Lavrov said that the American ideas “did not completely satisfy us”. Kerry had initially said that he would travel to Moscow today but telephoned on Saturday to postpone the talks, Lavrov said.
The encounter came as Yatsenyuk, battling to hold Ukraine together, scheduled talks at the White House on Wednesday — days before a referendum on Sunday on Crimea’s future. The Interfax-Ukraine news agency said today that Yatsenyuk would address the UN Security Council on Thursday.
“Our fathers and grandfathers have spilled their blood for this land,” Yatsenyuk said in a speech yesterday. “We won’t budge a single centimetre from Ukrainian land. Let Russia and its President know this.” He followed up that warning today by accusing Russia of seeking to “undermine the foundations of global security and revise the outcome of World War II”.
The war of words between Ukraine and Russia seemed set to intensify tomorrow when, according to Russian news reports, Yanukovich, the deposed President of Ukraine, will make a public statement in Rostov-on-Don, in southern Russia.
The looming deadline set by the Crimean referendum, which will ask voters whether they want to join Russia or seek broader autonomy within Ukraine, has added to the challenges facing the international diplomacy.
“We can see that time is really very pressing,” Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for the German government, said in Berlin today, one day after Chancellor Angela Merkel again called Putin and urged him to facilitate the creation of a contact group to bring Russia and Ukraine into talks.
“There can be no playing for time,” Seibert said at a news conference. “We are expecting concrete steps for the development of a contact group.”
Germany has conducted intensive diplomacy in recent days, and foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier will visit the three Baltic states tomorrow, while Merkel is expected in Poland on Wednesday. So far, however, Germany’s traditionally tight ties with Russia and all over the east of Europe have failed to improve what Steinmeier has called the most difficult crisis in Europe since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
Officials refused to discuss when Germany would declare the diplomatic avenue closed, and exactly when and how any EU sanctions such as travel bans would be imposed on Russian officials.