Crimea’s referendum on joining Russia heightens tensions in the gravest post-Cold War stand-off between the West and Moscow.
Russia now has more than 30,000 troops in Ukraine’s disputed Crimea peninsular, according to reports. The estimate is nearly twice the previous figure given by Ukraine’s new government in Kiev. A spokesman for Serhiy Astakhov, head of the Ukrainian border guards, told Reuters the figure included both troops that had arrived over the last week and Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, based in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol. Moscow’s forces now have complete control of Crimea, but the only troops Russia claims it has there are the 11,000 in Sevastopol - a claim ridiculed by the West. The soldiers that have occupied key positions across the region and surrounded Ukrainian troops in their bases wear no badges on their uniforms, but drive vehicles with Russian military number plates.
Russian forces outside a military base in Simferopol, Crimea
Defence analyst Francis Tusa told Sky News: “Most of them seem to be in the most recent-issued Russian camouflage uniforms. ”They all look well-trained – they just don’t look like a ragtag militia that’s grown up out of nowhere claiming to protect homes. ”The weapons look very well looked after. They may not be wearing unit badges, but they look like regular, well-trained forces. ”I think it’s very difficult to deny the impression they give.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied he is “orchestrating events” in Crimea and said he is simply responding to a request for help. He spoke out after Moscow was warned it faces further sanctions if it fails to pull its forces out of Ukraine, as the gravest post-Cold War stand-off between the West and Russia continues. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said if the first round of sanctions do not work, the West will consider targeting businesses and individuals close to Mr Putin. In response, Russia said it “will not accept the language of sanctions and threats” and would respond if sanctions were imposed.
France’s foreign affairs minister Laurent Fabius says the West may impose more sanctions on Russia
Overnight, US President Barack Obama spoke to Mr Putin on the phone for an hour, trying to convince him to accept the terms of a potential diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis. After the call, the Russian leader said the two sides were still far apart. It came as Crimea’s parliament voted to join Russia, and announced they would be holding a referendum in nine days. The move has sparked a dramatic escalation in the crisis – and was immediately condemned by Mr Obama – and Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who called it an “illegal decision” by Crimean authorities.
He said Ukraine was ready for talks with Russia, but Moscow must first withdraw its troops, abide by international agreements and halt its support for “separatists and terrorists”. In Russia, the Upper House of Parliament said Crimea had the right to hold a referendum on its future status. Former Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky said there was now a greater danger of shots being fired in Crimea. ”Russia is encouraging the action of local forces,” he said. ”We are at a very dangerous point, and it threatens to push a political crisis in the direction of a military situation.”
Pro-Russians gather outside a military base in Crimea
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Paralympic chief Valeriy Sushkevich said his team would compete in the Winter Paralympics in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. But he said they would pull out of the Games, which begin shortly, if Russian forces invaded mainland Ukraine. Mr Obama has ordered sanctions on those responsible for Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine, including bans on travel to America and freezing of their US assets. He also echoed European Union leaders and the pro-Western government in Ukraine in insisting the referendum would violate international law.
Ukraine says it will still go to the Paralympics in Sochi
He said Russians and Ukrainians involved in what he called “threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine” would be punished – although a US official said Mr Putin was not on the list of those to be sanctioned. In a statement released by the Kremlin early on Friday, Mr Putin said Kiev’s new authorities had imposed “absolutely illegitimate decisions on the eastern, southeastern and Crimea regions”. ”Russia cannot ignore calls for help in this matter and it acts accordingly, in full compliance with the international law,” he said. Russia’s Foreign Ministry also hit out at Nato’s decision to curb its co-operation with Moscow – and said it showed a “biased and prejudiced approach” over Ukraine.