Ukraine said it would pull its military out of Crimea and fortify its eastern border with Russia as European leaders struggled to come up with a unified response to punish Vladimir Putin for annexing the breakaway Black Sea region.
Demilitarization “is the best way to de-escalate the situation,” Andriy Parubiy, head of Ukraine’s National Security Council, told reporters in Kiev, while declining to say when the evacuation would take place. “Troops from both Ukraine and Russia” should be removed from Crimea, he said.
The withdrawal announcement comes as pro-Russian civilians in Crimea continued to detain Ukrainian military personnel, including its navy chief, after overrunning installations in the region, that’s home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov set a deadline of 9 p.m. local time for their release.
Putin’s move to annex Crimea following the ouster of the Moscow-backed Ukrainian president last month has plunged Russia and the West into their worst crisis since the end of the Cold War. The decision to reinforce troops patrolling its eastern regions highlights Ukraine’s concerns that Russia may attempt to further destabilize the country by creating turmoil in areas with large pro-Russia populations.
The governor of the eastern Kharkiv region warned yesterday that Russia had increased its military presence near the border. Russian forces have been boosted in the last five days, massing along roadways about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the frontier, said Ihor Baluta, appointed by the interim government in Kiev after President Viktor Yanukovych fled for Russia.
During a Kremlin speech to Russian lawmakers yesterday that was met with cheers and standing ovations, Putin blamed Western encroachment for forcing him to take control of Crimea, a move he described as reversing a historic wrong.
While he said Russia doesn’t plan to further split up Ukraine, Putin asserted his right to defend Russian speakers in Ukraine’s east, where the nation’s prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, says the Kremlin is behind “aggressive” protests.
European Union leaders meeting tomorrow will seek to overcome differences on how to pressure Putin into a retreat after Russian officials shrugged off an earlier round of visa bans and asset freezes by the EU and U.S.
While British Prime Minister David Cameron vowed to push European heads of state to agree on additional measures against Russia when they meet March 20-21 in Brussels, others were less sure.
The summit probably won’t agree on economic sanctions, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said today, the CTK news service reported. Penalties against Russia should be gradual and reversible to as to avoid a return to the “Iron Curtain,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi told lawmakers.
Underscoring the cautious mood, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said today that the West must try to avoid a “spiral” of sanctions with Russia, according to the Die Welt newspaper.
“It’s important to try everything to achieve a de-escalation and not to think in categories of retaliation,” Steinmeier told an economic conference sponsored by the daily.
It’s unclear whether EU leaders will agree on a road map for economic sanctions at the two-day summit, five EU officials told reporters today. A less controversial option would be to expand an existing blacklist of 21 Russian and Crimean officials, they said.
Informally, ideas floated publicly include restricting Russian access to the European financial system; curbing European investment in Russian industries, notably energy; and imposing European antitrust penalties on gas export monopoly OAO Gazprom. No deadline has been set for wider economic sanctions.
The speaker of Russia’s senate, Valentina Matviyenko, said both houses of parliament may ratify Crimea’s accession to Russia and approve constitutional changes by the end of this week, according to a statement on the upper house’s website.
Parubiy said today that the government in Kiev would withdraw from the Commonwealth of Independent States, seek compensation from Russia for its seized assets and bolster security at nuclear installations. “Russia plans to occupy territory, politically destabilize Ukraine and hinder presidential elections,” he said.