Russia on Saturday was reported to be reinforcing its military presence in Crimea as Moscow’s foreign minister ruled out any dialogue with Ukraine’s new authorities, whom he dismissed as puppets.
Vladislav Seleznyov, a Crimean-based spokesman for the Ukrainian armed forces, told The Associated Press that witnesses had reported seeing amphibious military ships unloading around 200 military vehicles in eastern Crimea on Friday night after apparently having crossed the Straits of Kerch, which separates Crimea from Russian territory.
He also said a convoy of more than 60 military trucks bearing no license plate numbers was headed from the eastern city of Feodosia toward the city of Simferopol, the regional capital.
The amphibious operation appeared to be one of the largest movements of Russian military forces since they appeared in Crimea a week ago.
Selenyov said AP: “Neither the equipment nor the paratroopers have insignia that identify them as Russian, but we have no doubt as to their allegiance.”
An AP reporter sighted the convoy Saturday afternoon 25 miles west of Fedosia. In the backs of the vehicles, heavily armed soldiers could be seen, though none appeared to have identifying badges or insignia. Soldiers spat at reporters following the convoy.
The Ukrainian military spokesman also said that in Simferopol, several dozen armed men on Saturday broke into a military warehouse containing Ukrainian military goods.
The regional parliament in Crimea has set a March 16 referendum on leaving Ukraine to join Russia, and senior lawmakers in MOSCOW said they would support the move, ignoring sanctions threats and warnings from U.S. President Barack Obama that the vote would violate international law.
The strategic peninsula in southern Ukraine has become the flashpoint in the battle for Ukraine, where three months of protests sent President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing to Russia. A majority of people in Crimea identify with Russia, and Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol, as is Ukraine’s.
While the U.S. and the EU urged Russia to engage in dialogue with new Ukrainian authorities, the Kremlin has refused to do so, denouncing the change of power in Ukraine as an “unconstitutional coup.”
“The so-called interim government isn’t independent, it depends, to our great regret, on radical nationalists who have seized power with arms,” he said at a news conference. He said that nationalist groups use “intimidation and terror” to control Ukraine.
On Friday evening, pro-Russia soldiers tried to take over a Ukrainian base in a tense standoff that lasted for several hours.
Lt. Col. Vitaly Onishchenko, deputy commander of the base, said three dozen men wearing unmarked camouflage uniforms arrived late Friday. While one group climbed over a wall on one side of the base, another crashed a heavy military truck through the gates, Onishchenko said.
He said Saturday that they turned off power, cut telephone lines and demanded that about 100 Ukrainian troops, who barricaded themselves into one of the base buildings, surrender their weapons and swear allegiance to Russia. The invaders left around midnight.
No shots were fired in and no injuries were reported.
In the week since Russia seized control of Crimea, Russian troops have been neutralizing and disarming Ukrainian military bases there. Some Ukrainian units, however, have refused to give up. Crimea’s new leader has said pro-Russian forces numbering more than 11,000 now control all access to the region and have blockaded all military bases that haven’t yet surrendered.
Russia has denied that its forces are active in Crimea, describing the troops who wear green uniforms without insignia as local “self-defense forces.” But many of the troops, who are armed with advanced heavy weaponry, are being transported by vehicles with Russian license plates.
Onishchenko said the troops who tried to overrun his base were clearly Russian.
“These were Russian servicemen specially ordered,” he said. “Their watches were set to MOSCOW time. They spoke with Russian accents and they didn’t hide their allegiance to the Russian Federation.”
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said that Moscow has no intention of annexing Crimea, but says its people have the right to determine the region’s status in a referendum.
The Crimean referendum has been denounced by Ukraine’s new government, and Obama has said it would violate international law. The U.S. moved Thursday to impose its first sanctions on Russians involved in the military occupation of Crimea.
Speaking on BBC on Saturday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that while there is no military response to the recent events of Crimea, the crisis was a reminder of threats to European security and stability.
“I do believe that politicians all over NATO will now rethink the whole thing about investment in security and defense,” he told the BBC. “Obviously, defense comes at a cost but insecurity is much more expensive.”