Military tensions are set to escalate on the Crimean peninsula as Russian forces take over a naval headquarters, and Ukraine says its troops will not withdraw from the region.
Russian soldiers and so-called “self-defence” units moved in on the Ukraine naval headquarters in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol early on Wednesday morning and quickly took control.
Ukrainian servicemen, unarmed and in civilian clothing, have been seen leaving the base, and three Russian flags have been hoist at the facility.
“This morning they stormed the compound. They cut the gates open, but I heard no shooting,” said Oleksander Balanyuk, a captain in the navy.
“This thing should have been solved politically. Now all I can do is stand here at the gate. There is nothing else I can do.”
The incident is a sign of rising military tensions on the peninsula as Moscow asserts its control the day after signing a treaty with the Russian-installed Crimean government to cede the region.
Shortly after the incident, Ukraine’s acting defence minister said Ukrainian forces would not withdraw from the area.
Asked by journalists following a government meeting in Kiev, Ihor Tenyukh, a member of the far-right Svoboda party, said: “No. We will stay.”
At the Belbek air base on the outskirts of Simferopol, Ukrainian forces remain in control and have been given an order to use their weapons to defence the facility.
An officer reading an order from Ukraine’s defence ministry, said: “Military units located in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea are allowed to use weapons if there is a direct threat to their lives.”
Overnight Ukrainian troops moved closer to Crimea. Anti-tank trenches are being dug in Donetsk and near Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia at Novoazovsk.
Earlier in the week, the Ukrainian government in Kiev ordered the partial mobilisation of 40,000 reservist troops.
On Wednesday the secretary of the National Security and Defence council, Andriy Parubiy, announced that visas would be introduced for Russians visiting Ukraine, and warned that the prospects of a military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine were growing.
His warning follows the death of a Ukrainian soldier on Tuesday in Crimea’s main city, Simferopol – the first death in Crimea from a military clash since the region came under Russian control.
Ukraine’s Prime Minister Yatsenyuk denounced the death as a “war crime”.
Russia said it would consider introducing visas for Ukrainians once Moscow had been officially informed of the new visa regime by the government in Kiev.
Meanwhile the US has sent a guided-missile destroyer to the Black Sea, in a move that it said would “reassure allies that we support them.”
The Truxtun joined Bulgarian and Romanian navies for a one-day military exercise which was described as “routine” and something that had been planned well before the Crimean crisis.
“There are many reasons for exercises with allies, it allows us an opportunity to assure our NATO allies that we support them,” Shawn Eklund, a public affairs officer for US Naval Forces Europe said.
David Cameron issued a warning to Russia that it faces exclusion from the G8 if it takes further steps in Ukraine.
“I think we should be discussing whether or not to expel Russia permanently from the G8 if further steps are taken,” the prime minister told the House of Commons.
Mr Cameron added that the Crimea referendum was “spatchcocked together in ten days and held at the point of a Russian Kalashnikov.”
On Tuesday Russian President Vladimir Putin passionately defended the annexation of Crimea, saying that Crimea was an “inalienable” part of Russia.
However, Ukraine and western powers have denounced a referendum on the weekend in which 97 per cent of the population was reported to have voted to join Russia. The most recent poll of Crimeans, conducted a month ago, whilst President Viktor Yanukovych was still in power, said that just 41 per cent of Crimeans were in favour of joining Russia.