SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine — The embattled government in Kiev said Monday night that Russian forces had dramatically escalated the standoff between the two nations by giving Ukraine’s army and navy in Crimea a blunt ultimatum: Pledge allegiance to the region’s new pro-Russia leadership or be forced by Russia to submit.
A spokesman for the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which is berthed in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, denied that a threat had been made, and the Russian Defense Ministry called the accusation “utter nonsense.” But as Russian troops and warships surrounded Ukrainian security installations throughout the autonomous Crimean Peninsula, it was clear that Ukrainian forces believed they faced an imminent threat even though no shot had been fired.
A Ukrainian Defense Ministry official alleged that Russia’s Black Sea Fleet commander had set a deadline of 10 p.m. Monday Eastern time — for Ukrainian forces to capitulate, according to the Interfax-Ukrainian news agency. There were no immediate reports of activity after the deadline passed.
The stepped-up Russian troop movements came two days after Russia’s parliament approved the use of force to protect the country’s citizens and military sites in Crimea, a region with deep ties to Russia. The actions on Monday triggered a cascade of condemnation from European and American officials, who vowed that Russia would face consequences if it did not pull back its soldiers.
President Barack Obama said Moscow was “on the wrong side of history,” and threatened “a whole series of steps — economic, diplomatic” — to isolate Russia and “have a negative impact on its economy and its standing in the world.”
Here at Sevastopol, a Ukrainian naval command ship was confronted Monday evening by four tugboats flying Russian colors and was boxed in by a Russian minesweeper. Other Russian warships appeared at the mouth of the harbor to block an escape to the sea. A nearby Ukrainian naval station flew a Russian flag.
As the anxious wives of officers on the Ukrainian ship watched from shore, its crew rushed about in what appeared to be an attempt to repel boarders. The sailors — who carried side arms and military assault rifles — fixed mattresses to the railings, uncoiled fire hoses and brought firefighting equipment on deck.
On Monday night, the Russian Black Sea Fleet ordered the crew members to lay down their arms and leave the ships, according to the UNIAN news agency.
Ukrainian officials expressed fears that the tensions could lead to violence overnight, which could give Russia reason to justify military action.
“Provocations with killing of three to four Russian soldiers are planned on the territory of Crimea tonight,” said Deputy Interior Minister Mykola Velichkovych, the ministry’s press service reported. Speaking to the Russians, Velichkovych said: “We call on you to come to your senses. We call on you to stop.”
Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, said Monday that he had been in communication with Ukraine’s military commanders in Crimea and that they assured him they would not yield to the Russians, according to the UNN news agency of Ukraine.
Western diplomats pressed Russia to pull back. In an interview with the BBC, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who was in Kiev, said the Russian intervention in Crimea has produced “a very tense and dangerous situation” that amounts to Europe’s “biggest crisis” in the 21st century.
“The world cannot just allow this to happen,” said Hague, whose American counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry, was due in Kiev today.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the European Union would have an emergency summit Thursday and take action against Russia if it has not sent troops back to their barracks in the Crimea by then.
But the Western threats appeared to have made little impact on Russia by Monday night. Speaking in Geneva, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov justified the Russian troop deployment as necessary to protect Russians living in Crimea “until the normalization of the political situation” in Ukraine, where months of protests led to the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych last month.