Tensions Remain High in Crimea Amid Renewed Effort to Mediate
By STEVEN LEE MYERS and STEVEN ERLANGERMARCH 8, 2014
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MOSCOW — Even as Russia and Ukraine signaled a willingness to seek a diplomatic resolution to the widening crisis over Crimea on Saturday, new tensions roiled on the disputed peninsula, and Russia raised the possibility of suspending inspections required under arms control treaties because of stepped-up operations by NATO.
“We are ready to continue a dialogue on the understanding that a dialogue should be honest and partner-like, without attempts to portray us as one of the parties in the conflict,” Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said during an appearance with his counterpart from Tajikistan.
Hours after he spoke, however, an unidentified military official told Russian news agencies that Russia was considering suspending inspections of its nuclear arsenal required by the strategic arms reduction treaties, as well as other military cooperation agreements meant to build confidence and avoid international confrontations.
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The official said the move was justified by “baseless threats” against Russia by the United States and NATO. A suspension of the inspections would undermine a pillar of international security and expand the confrontation beyond Ukraine itself.
Although President Obama has made it clear that the United States does not want to escalate the Crimean crisis, the Pentagon stepped up training operations in Poland and sent fighter jets to patrol the skies over Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, three former Soviet republics that, like Ukraine, have sizable ethnic Russian populations.
In Kiev, Ukraine’s new foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsa, said that some small progress had been made to form a “contact group” of foreign diplomats to mediate the country’s confrontation with Russia after the occupation of Crimea by Russian soldiers and local “self-defense” groups more than a week ago.
Crimea’s regional assembly voted on Thursday to secede from Ukraine and apply to join the Russian Federation, and scheduled a referendum for March 16 to ratify its decision, significantly escalating the crisis between Russia and the West. Ukraine, along with the United States and Europe, declared the referendum unconstitutional and made clear it would not recognize the Crimean vote, though the prospect of Crimea joining Russia received an overwhelmingly positive reaction from Russian lawmakers on Friday.
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“We have a certain small progress and some hope that we will manage this in a peaceful way,” Mr. Deshchysta said in Kiev. “We need to create some negotiating mechanism” with Russia, “and we think it should be established as soon as possible.” He said Ukraine was open to talks with Russia in any setting “to stop the aggression and de-escalate the situation.”
But Mr. Lavrov did not budge from Russia’s position that the new government in Ukraine was illegitimate and under the sway of “radical nationalists” who seized power in a coup. He insisted that any talks with Europe or the United States should begin with the agreement signed Feb. 21 between the ousted Ukrainian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, and opposition leaders to end the bloodshed in Kiev, even though that accord fell apart almost immediately.
The diplomacy is likely to be complicated, however, because Russian officials have refused to recognize Ukraine’s new political leaders, though the Russian and Ukraine prime ministers have spoken and Mr. Deshchysta said that messages were being exchanged through intermediaries, presumably European and American diplomats.
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Even as Mr. Lavrov continued to denounce those Russia considers to be the radicals behind the ouster of Mr. Yanukovych’s government, the leader of a right-wing group that figured prominently in the street protests staked a claim on Saturday for a larger role in the political future of Ukraine. The group, Right Sector, has not disbanded its quasi-military units, whose members now at times appear armed in public and have become more vocally critical of the interim government in recent days.
A day after declaring himself a candidate for president in the election now scheduled for May, the group’s leader, Dmytro Yarosh, provided the most detailed description yet of his political ambitions and goals.
Mr. Yarosh said the Right Sector, which played a prominent role in last month’s protests and street battles, was not disbanding because it wanted to dissuade Russia from moving deeper into Ukraine. “Ukraine is practically in a state of war with Russia,” he said, “and it is too early to speak of pacification and disarmament.”
In Crimea itself, tensions continued to mount despite the diplomacy. Poland evacuated its consulate in Sevastopol on Saturday “because of continuing disturbances by Russian forces there,” the country’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, said.
There were new reports of Russian military maneuvers on Saturday, the morning after Russian troops tried to seize a Ukrainian Air Force base in the port of Sevastopol housing 100 soldiers. Two Russian military vehicles smashed through the gate of the base, but there were no shots fired and the vehicles withdrew.
“They came here because it was our turn,” said Lt. Col. Andrey A. Aladashvilli, an officer at the base. “They’ve already been everywhere, they’ve tried to block, seize and establish control everywhere. We’re practically one of the last.”
An observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an international group with 57 member states, including Ukraine and Russia, has been trying to enter Crimea for days now, but has been stopped at a checkpoint controlled by armed men in uniforms without insignia. The Associated Press reported that warning shots were fired at the observers when they tried again to cross into Crimea on Saturday.
Mr. Deshchysta said that Russia should allow the observers in, as well as officials from the United Nations, as a first step to calming tensions in Crimea and creating the atmosphere for international mediation. A day after Russia signaled that it was prepared to annex Crimea — despite a denial by President Vladimir V. Putin only days before — Mr. Deshchysta flatly declared that Ukraine would never agree.
“Crimea is and will remain a Ukrainian land,” he said. He sought to ease fears of a military conflict, however, adding, “We will apply every effort to resolve this issue in a diplomatic way.”
After days of pro-Russian protests in Crimea, supporters of the new government in Kiev also rallied in the regional capital, Simferopol, confronting Russian demonstrators and volunteer militiamen. The rival protests showed that support for seceding from Ukraine is not universal in the region.
Several hundred men and women, carrying Ukrainian flags and blue and yellow flower-shaped balloons, marched through the city’s center to deliver tulips to Ukrainian troops in celebration of Women’s Day. At the base, two female soldiers came out to meet the demonstrators who handed them flowers and chanted “Crimea is Ukraine.”
“I don’t want to live in Russia,” said Igor Klimenko, who took part in the demonstration. “Russia is not a free country — in Russia I can’t come out here and express myself like this.”
In Bakhchysarai, the historic center of what was once the Crimean Tartars’ homeland, several hundred protesters, mostly Tatar women and children, marched against integration with Russia, waving Ukrainian and Tatar flags, and chanting “We’re for peace,” “Ukraine is inseparable,” and “Russian soldiers, go home!”
“We want the aggressor to leave,” said Dilyara Seyt-Yaleeva, a member of the local teachers’ council. “Crimea is flooded with Russian troops and we are very afraid.” She added: “If this becomes Russia, there will be cleansings here. I don’t know what the Crimean Tatars will do. We can’t leave our homeland.”
Tatars make up roughly 12 percent of the population of Crimea, contributing to the ethnic and religious diversity in a region that is mostly Russian. With the referendum on rejoining Russia imminent, many of those marching recalled Stalin’s mass deportation of Tatars in 1944 after the Soviet Union recaptured the peninsula from the Nazis.
“Once was enough,” said one marcher, Galina Seyt-Kharilova.
Steven Lee Myers reported from Moscow, and Steven Erlanger from Kiev, Ukraine. Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Kiev; Patrick Reevell from Simferopol, Ukraine; and Noah Sneider from Bakhchysaray, Ukraine.