Russia will try to further provoke tensions in eastern and southern Ukraine after moving this week to annex the breakaway Crimean peninsula, interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said.
Ukraine still controls its east and south, though groups financed and trained by Russia are present in those regions, Yatsenyuk said in an interview early today in Brussels. He spoke less than a day after his government said it would pull its forces from Crimea, where pro-Russia civilians yesterday overran bases and seized Ukrainian military personnel.
“It’s crystal clear for us that Russian authorities will try to move further and escalate the situation in southern and eastern Ukraine,” he said. “But we still maintain control and we still preserve the fragile stability in these regions.”
Yatsenyuk discussed the standoff with Russia hours before European Union leaders meet to look for ways to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to abandon his claim on Crimea, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Sanctions from the U.S. and the EU have so far failed to dissuade Putin, leaving Russia and the West embroiled in their worst confrontation since the Cold War.
Even with the Ukrainian government’s planned withdrawal of forces from Crimea, Yatsenyuk said the region now claimed by Russia belongs to Ukraine. He rejected the legitimacy of a March 16 vote in Crimea on joining Russia that was held amid the visible presence of pro-Russia forces.
“Crimea is a Ukrainian territory,” Yatsenyuk said. “No one will recognize this so-called referendum and annexation.”
After the referendum, in which almost 97 percent supported joining Russia, Putin signed an accord on March 18 setting in motion Crimea’s accession. Lawmakers in Moscow may ratify the move by week’s end, according to the speaker of Russia’s senate, Valentina Matviyenko.
The U.S. and EU have condemned the Crimea ballot and urged Putin to pull Russian troops back to their bases and open talks with Yatsenyuk’s government. Russia has spurned those calls, saying the new government in Kiev took power illegally after ousting former President Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year.
Yatsenyuk said Ukraine’s “first problem is defensive,” and that he has asked his defense minister to contact counterparts in Russia, the U.S. and U.K. to look for ways to ease tensions and “avoid bloodshed.” He cited a March 18 shooting in which a Ukrainian soldier was killed and two others wounded by unidentified “people with Russian passports.”
While in Brussels, Yatsenyuk will sign the political provisions of a trade accord with the EU, a move he called a “historic step” for Ukraine. Yanukovych’s rejection in November of a free-trade deal with the EU in favor of $15 billion in Russian aid set off protests in Kiev that led to his ouster last month.
“It means a lot for the people of Ukraine,” Yatsenyuk said. “Our protests started with the pro-European slogans.”