UKRAINE’S government has ordered troops to pull back from Crimea, as Russian forces seized bases on the peninsula.
Since Russian president Vladimir Putin formally annexed Crimea last week, Russian forces have raised the heat on the Ukrainian military on the Black Sea peninsula, seizing ships and breaking into walled military installations with armoured personnel carriers.
After weeks of tension, Ukrainian troops had already begun leaving – including the crew who abandoned the ship Konstantin Olshanskiy in the bay of Donuzlav.
The Ukrainian sailors were greeted by hecklers on the shore. One man shouted they were “rats” fleeing a ship, while another man blasted the Russian national anthem from his car.
At a naval base near the eastern Crimean port of Feodosia, two injured servicemen were taken captive on Monday and as many as 80 were detained at the site, Ukrainian officials said. With the storming of at least three military facilities in Crimea over the past three days – and the decision by some Ukrainian troops to stay employed by switching to the Russian side – it is not clear how many Ukrainian troops remain on the peninsula.
The former chief of Ukraine’s navy, who was charged with treason after he swore allegiance to Crimea’s pro-Russian authorities and urged others to defect, was named a deputy chief of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Oleksandr Turchnyno, Ukraine’s acting president, said the Defence Ministry was ordered to withdraw all servicemen in Crimea to Ukraine’s mainland. Turchnynov said Ukrainian troops would be evacuated with their families in response to threats from “occupying Russian forces”.
The situation is expected to dominate US president Barack Obama’s agenda as he begins a week of international travel. He arrived in the Netherlands yesterday to attend a nuclear security summit but the event was overshadowed by talks on Ukraine among the Group of Seven industrialised economies. Russia has been excluded from the group.
The government in Kiev has been criticized for its indecision over what outmanned Ukrainian troops in Crimea should do in the face of Russian military might. Over the weekend, Russian troops stormed Belbek air force base near Sevastopol and detained its commander. Last week, they trapped Ukrainian warships by sinking vessels to block the port’s entrance.
Oleksandr Rozmaznin, deputy chief of operations for Ukraine’s armed forces, said half the troops in Crimea may have defected to the Russians.
Moscow says its absorption of Crimea is legitimate after a referendum earlier this month in which the vast majority of residents approved the move, but the process has come under criticism from the international community.