Russia strengthens its grip on Crimea

Ukraine says Moscow issued an ultimatum if forces didn’t surrender.

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEMarch 4, 2014 

KIEV, Ukraine — The embattled new government of Ukraine said Monday the Russians had demanded that Ukrainian forces give up within hours or face armed assault.

Russia denied it had issued any ultimatum but was clearly moving to strengthen its grip on Crimea, brushing aside new admonitions from President Barack Obama and European leaders of economic punishment and isolation.

At the United Nations, where the Security Council met for the third time in emergency session since Friday, Ukraine Ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev, distributed a three-page letter asserting that Russia had sent 16,000 troops into the Crimean peninsula since Feb. 24. The troops, Sergeyev wrote, had moved to “seize, block and control crucial governmental and military objects of Ukraine in Crimea.”

The Interfax-Ukrainian news agency quoted an unidentified Ukrainian Defense Ministry official as saying Russia’s Black Sea Fleet commander had set a deadline of 5 a.m. Tuesday — 8 p.m. Monday Mountain time — for Ukrainian forces stationed in Crimea to lay down their weapons, and many Ukrainian soldiers seemed to take the threat seriously. Russia’s Interfax news agency said the Black Sea Fleet had no such plans.

The conflicting reports only further served to worsen tensions in the Ukraine crisis, which has grown drastically in scope in the past few weeks to a new confrontation between Russia and the West reminiscent of low points in the Cold War.

Russia has denied Western accusations that it flouted international law in asserting military control in Crimea, a historically Russian region that is home to its Black Sea naval base. The Russians have asserted that they moved to protect their legitimate interests there after President Viktor Yanukovych fled more than a week ago after protests in Kiev that reflected opposition to his shift toward closer relations with Russia.

The Kremlin still regards him as the legitimate president.

The U.N. Security Council meeting in New York was requested by Russia’s ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, who told fellow members that Russia had acted to thwart what he called threats by “ultranationalists,” including anti-Semites, against Russians and Russian speakers inside Ukraine. Churkin also held up a copy of a letter from Yanukovych to Russia asking for military help.

Yet the Security Council meeting quickly became a venue for East-West diplomatic jibes and rejoinders. The British ambassador, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, called Russia’s justification “bogus,” while the envoy from Lithuania, Raimonda Murmokaite, told the Security Council it “resurrects the memory of darkest pages of the 20th century.”

After Churkin had spoken, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said, “Listening to the representative of Russia, one might think that Moscow had just become the rapid response arm of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.”

The council took no action, and it remained unclear what — if anything — it might agree to do, since Russia, a permanent member, has veto power.

Although Crimea was relatively calm Monday, Russian forces tightened their grip on key military bases and other security facilities throughout the peninsula, including naval installations and outposts of the border police.

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