Pro-Russian forces capture Ukrainian naval base in Crimea without firing a shot

Ukrainian commanders appeared resigned to the seizure of their base, but Ukraine's government vowed not to pull its troops from Crimea, which voted Sunday to join Russia.

Andrew Lubimov/AP
A member of a Pro-Russian self-defense force reaches for a knife as he takes down a Ukrainian Navy flag at the Ukrainian Navy headquarters in Sevastopol, Crimea, Thursday.

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Pro-Russian forces overran Ukraine's naval headquarters in Crimea today, ratcheting up tensions in Ukraine a day after Russian and Crimean leaders signed a treaty paving the way toward annexation. 

Russian troops and unarmed militiamen stormed the naval headquarters in the port city of Sevastopol, according to Reuters, and raised the Russian flag. No shots were reported fired, and unarmed Ukrainian servicemen were seen leaving the building in civilian clothing an hour later.

“This morning they stormed the compound. They cut the gates open, but I heard no shooting,” Ukrainian Navy Cpt. Oleksander Balanyuk told Reuters. "This thing should have been solved politically. Now all I can do is stand here at the gate. There is nothing else I can do.”

Ukraine's government in Kiev, which refuses to recognize Crimea's annexation, took a firmer tone, vowing today not to withdraw its military from Crimea, according to The Washington Post.

The naval base seizure follows the deaths of two soldiers yesterday, the first casualties in Crimea since Russian forces flooded the territory three weeks ago. A Ukrainian soldier and a Russian soldier were killed when pro-Russian forces took over another Ukrainian military base near Simferopol, Crimea, the Post reports.

The incident Tuesday afternoon began when unidentified assailants “stormed” the base, said Vladislav Seleznyov, a spokesman for the Ukrainian military. It’s unclear whether they were part of the Russian military or a volunteer militia.

He said guns were fired into the air, and it is unclear whether the two victims were struck by stray bullets or if they were fired at directly.

In response, the government in Kiev authorized its soldiers in Crimea to use live fire in self-defense. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyul said the crisis had moved “from a political to a military phase.”

Sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union have not deterred Russia’s moves to lay claim to Crimea, which was gifted to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet rulers in Moscow. Australia today also authorized sanctions on 12 Russian and Ukrainians, according to the Guardian.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pushed back against sanctions yesterday, threatening “consequences” over them in a phone call with US Secretary of State John Kerry, according to the BBC.

After Mr Lavrov spoke to Mr Kerry, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement: "(Crimea) republic residents made their democratic choice in line with the international law and the UN charter, which Russia accepts and respects.

"The sanctions introduced by the United States and the European Union are unacceptable and will not remain without consequences."

It did not spell out what those consequences might be.

An editorial today by the Kremlin mouthpiece RT, titled “Solving the Crisis in Ukraine,”  said that “rhetoric and punitive measures and threats of further sanctions against Russia [...] will merely harden Russia’s resolve, forcing Moscow to take counter-measures which could be devastating to an already fragile European and global economy.” The editorial said the priority should be to hold talks on how to rebuild Ukraine’s economy and reframe its constitution, while describing Ukraine's interim government as "fascists." 

A key concern for Moscow is ensuring that minorities (or Russians) were protected:

Finally, the ethnic and religious minorities in Ukraine see themselves, to a large extent, under assault from an intolerant putsch government in Kiev that would like nothing more than to marginalize them completely, if not force them out of the country. The ideology of the fascist groups, which see Ukraine’s multiethnic character as a negative rather than a positive asset, must be reconciled with the political and social reality. Of course, there can be no future in Ukraine for these ethnic and religious groups, unless they are guaranteed protection from a government they recognize as legitimate. 

Statements like those have raised concerns that Russia could move to annex territory in eastern Ukraine, but President Vladimir Putin pledged that would not be the case in his speech yesterday accepting the annexation of Ukraine, according to The Christian Science Monitor:

But in what might be interpreted as a concession to Ukraine, Putin pledged that Russia would not seek to grab any more territory from its restive and largely Russian-speaking eastern regions. "Don’t believe those who say Russia will take other regions after Crimea. We don’t need that," Putin said.

The Monitor’s correspondent in Moscow writes that the effects of Western pressure against Russia may not be immediate but will likely have a lasting effect: 

Still, Russians are liable to wake up to a new world in the next few months, as international opposition to the Crimea annexation hardens, and as sanctions imposed by the West possibly deepen and start to bite.

"This will not go well. Russia will strengthen Crimea while the West will feel free to make the rest of Ukraine its protectorate," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.

The consequences will almost certainly include efforts by Europe to diversify its energy supplies away from reliance on Russia, as well as other measures that will drag down Russia's already stagnating economy, he says.

And the domestic political consequences of USSR-like isolation are likely to be dire as well, he adds.

"We are already seeing a change in the tone of domestic politics. Those few who opposed Crimea being joined to Russia are openly called 'traitors.' Opposition that criticizes the authorities from outside the system are going to face a lot of new problems," he adds.

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