EU considers further sanctions against Russia

The European Union is readying further sanctions against Russia over its annexation of the Crimean peninsula.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told her nation’s parliament Thursday the EU is prepared to move to “Level 3” measures, which would include economic sanctions, if the situation worsens.

The EU has already imposed travel bans and asset freezes on Russian officials deemed responsible for the incursion into Crimea.

On Wednesday, Moscow signed a treaty with local authorities making Crimea part of Russia. The majority-Russian region voted to break away from Ukraine and join Russia in a referendum Sunday that the U.S. and European Union have declared illegal.

Chancellor Merkel said the Group of Eight forum of leading economies is effectively suspended as long as the diplomatic standoff with Russia continues. Russia is part of the G-8, along with Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.

In a continuation of efforts to end the crisis, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow Thursday. On Friday, he will meet in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Turchynov and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

Ukraine navy commander freed 

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s acting president says the commander of the country’s navy has been freed after being held by Russian forces and Crimean authorities at the navy’s headquarters in Crimea.

A statement by President Oleksandr Turchynov Thursday said Rear Admiral Sergei Haiduk was released along with an unspecified number of civilian hostages.

The group was detained after the Ukrainian naval base in the Crimean port of Sevastopol was seized Wednesday. Reports indicated pro-Russian militiamen — Crimea’s so-called “self-defense” forces — were behind the takeover, but President Turchynov’s statement suggests Russian forces were also involved.

After the seizure, which faced no resistance from Ukrainian servicemen, Ukraine’s security chief said the country has drawn up plans to evacuate its outnumbered military personnel from the Crimean peninsula.

In announcing the withdrawal, Andriy Parubiy — secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council — said Kyiv will seek United Nations support in turning the peninsula into a demilitarized zone. He also said Ukraine is planning to hold military maneuvers “with our allies,” but did not elaborate.

Ukraine’s deputy prime minister and defense minister traveled Wednesday from Kyiv to Crimea in an attempt to defuse tensions, but were denied entry into the territory. International observers have also been repeatedly turned away from the peninsula.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told reporters in Vilnius, Lithuania on Wednesday that Russia will face “increasing political and economic isolation” as long as it continues on what he called “its dark path.”

But President Putin says the Crimean peninsula has always been an “inalienable” part of Russia.

(Photo: EC Audiovisual Service)