A day after Russia claimed Crimea as its own, there are signs the uneasy standoff between pro-Russian and Ukrainian forces could ignite into bloody conflict.
Almost 300 armed pro-Russian supporters took over the Ukrainian navy’s headquarters in the Crimean port of Sevastopol Wednesday, said Marina Kanalyuk, assistant to the commander of Ukraine’s navy fleet.
“They are everywhere here, they surround us, they threaten us,” she said, adding that she was sure that Russian security forces were involved.
Kanalyuk said the 70 or so Ukrainian naval officers at the headquarters had tried to stop the armed men from entering and were now negotiating with them. So far, no shots have been fired, she said.
A little later, Vladislav Seleznyov, Defense Ministry spokesman in Crimea, said Ukrainian navy chief Sergey Gaiduk had been taken from the navy headquarters by a group of people.
The men replaced flags on the masts with the Russian and St. Andrew’s flag, the naval flag of the Russian Federation, Russia’s official Itar-Tass news agency reported. It denied any involvement by Russian military.
The incident comes a day after one member of the Ukrainian military was killed, another wounded and more captured when masked gunmen seized their base near the Crimean regional capital, Simferopol.
In the wake of that fatality — the first Ukrainian military death since the Crimea crisis erupted about two weeks ago — Ukraine’s defense ministry authorized its forces to open fire.
And Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk warned that the crisis was shifting “from political to the military form, and the blame is on the Russian military.”
Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Yarema and acting Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh are traveling from Kiev to Crimea on Wednesday “to prevent the escalation of conflict,” said Sergiy Nahoryanski, head of the Ukrainian government’s press center.
It’s not clear whether they will be able to gain access to the region. International observers have been turned away from Crimea in recent days and flights have also been limited.
Tuesday saw Russian President Vladimir Putin announce the annexation of Crimea, after voters in that semi-autonomous territory approved a hastily called weekend referendum on separating from Ukraine.
The contested referendum has been condemned by the interim Ukrainian government in Kiev, the United States and the European Union.
But Russia remains steadfastly defiant.