Russian forces appear to have taken control of the last Ukrainian military bases on the Crimean peninsula.
Russian forces and their supporters stormed two Ukrainian bases in Crimea, effectively giving them full control of the peninsula, which Moscow formally annexed a day ago following a hurried referendum condemned by the majority of the international community.
In Ukraine’s capital, a day after the interim government leaders signed a political alignment pact with the European Union, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeir accused Russian of attempting once again to divide Europe between East and West.
Steinmeir says: “It contradicts what we have experienced for decades. And we cannot accept this situation, cannot allow bloodshed again.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has expressed the hope that dispatching to Ukraine a 200-member team of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will help ease tensions. However, the ministry rejects any talk of the monitors entering Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia has now annexed.
The U.S. chief envoy to the OSCE, Daniel Baer, says the mission should have access to Crimea because the rest of the world still recognizes it as Ukrainian territory.
Three months of anti-government rallies in Ukraine, in which more than 100 people died, prompted President Viktor Yanukovych to flee his country. An interim government has been appointed with elections scheduled for May 25th.
The prime minister of that government, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, won praise Saturday from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for pushing reconciliation at a time many Ukrainians are feeling anger and frustration.
“I’m confident that with such a strong support of international community which you are receiving and under your leadership, as well as courageous people, you will be able to overcome this difficult time,” he said.
The secretary-general added that direct dialogue between Kyiv and Moscow is critical to reducing the current tensions.
However, there is no indication of that occurring any time soon.
In eastern Ukraine, meanwhile, thousands of residents of the city of Donetsk took to the streets Saturday, demanding a chance to vote, as people in Crimea did in a refendum a week ago (3/16), to break away from Ukraine and become part of Russia.
Among those in the region who want to keep Ukrainian sovereignty, there are fears that at any time the Russian military could move across the border and occupy Ukrainian territory, as it did in Crimea.
Not only is Ukraine losing territory to Russia; its eastward-dependent trade relationship with Moscow also is in danger.
The interim government is moving quickly to work on a trade agreement with the European Union to transform Ukraine’s economy, which has been hobbled by decades of corruption and political upheaval.
If such a pact with the EU is to become a reality, Ukraine’s commissioner for European integration, Valery Pyatnytsky, says there is a need for action on comprehensive economic changes, not just more promises from the country’s political leaders.
“Not to declare the fight with corruption, not to declare the rules of law, not to declare the other values with European Union. Not declare [what] we would like to be, but to be,” said Pyatnytsky.
Ukraine’s 45 million people live on rich agricultural land and the country has a large industrial base, yet the nation is considered the poorest in Eastern Europe.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law Friday completing the annexation of Crimea. The law recognizes parliament’s approval of a referendum by Crimeans on breaking away from Ukraine.
Obama going to Europe
The U.S. says no one in the international community will recognize Crimea as part of Russia.
White House officials say the situation in Ukraine will be “front and center” during President Barack Obama’s trip to Europe in the coming week.
National Security Advisor Susan Rice told reporters Friday that the common theme to the president’s trip is the fundamental strength of U.S. partnerships and alliances, including NATO, the European Union and the G7.
Rice said Ukraine and the Russian takeover of Crimea are prompting a fundamental reassessment of U.S.-Russian relations. She said the world will clearly see that Russia is more and more isolated.
Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said a G-7 summit in The Hague – a meeting that probably would have included Russia as an eighth member – has been added to the president’s agenda as part of that isolation.
Also on President Obama’s European schedule is a nuclear security summit with more than 50 other countries, including Russia.
Rice says the United States has every interest in continuing to cooperate with Russia on this issue, which she calls a pillar of the Obama national security policy – making it harder for terrorists to get their hands on nuclear materials.
Daniel Schearf contributed to this report from Crimea