Russia’s defence ministry dismisses claims that it had threatened Ukrainian troops in Crimea with a “real assault” if they did not surrender by the early hours of Tuesday morning as “utter nonsense”.
The ultimatum was reported by the Interfax news agency as having been issued by Alexander Vitko, commander of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, which has a base in Sevastopol.
“If they do not surrender before 5am (3am GMT) tomorrow, a real assault will be started against units and divisions of the armed forces across Crimea,” the agency quoted the ministry source as saying. Oleh Chubuk, a spokesman for the Ukrainian navy, said: “We know nothing about this.”
However, a short while later various news outlets reported that Russia’s defence ministry had dismissed the ultimatum as “utter nonsense”.
Russia’s military has, without bloodshed, taken control of Crimea. Russian troops surrounded military bases on the peninsula, and Ukrainian soldiers have since been allowed to leave some of the bases.
Ukraine has reported that there is a build-up of Russian armoured vehicles near to Crimea, after Russian President Vladimir Putin decreed on the weekend that invasion of Ukraine was allowed in order to protect Russia’s interests and citizens. Ukraine has called up its reservists and Ukraine’s army has been put on full combat alert.
Russian forces have seized control of a border guard checkpoint on the Ukrainian side of the ferry crossing between Russia and Crimea and are now bringing in truckloads of soldiers by ferry, Ukrainian border guards claim.
Meanwhile, pro-Russian protests have escalated outside Crimea. In scenes that mirror the protests in Crimea last week, pro-Russian demonstrators took control of part of a regional government headquarters in Donetsk, in Ukraine’s industrial heartlands, whilst pro-Russian protesters also massed in the streets (see picture, above).
Other protests have been taking place in eastern Ukraine, including a bloody protest in the city of Kharkiv on Saturday, in which people wielding chains and axe handles stormed the regional government building.
Kiev has accused Russia of orchestrating the protests in order to justify a wider Ukrainian invasion.
Meanwhile, a war of words has been raging between western powers and Moscow. Countries inclyuding the US and the UK have accused Russia of illegal behaviour, and have said that if it carries on then there will be “costs.”
G8 leaders have cancelled a summit, scheduled for June in Sochi to deal with the Ukrainian crisis, because of Russia’s actions and talks with Russia over visas have been suspended.
However, Keir Giles, an associate fellow at Chatham House, says that the west has little power to sanction Russia.
He said: “President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron and other western leaders have warned of ‘costs’ for Russia as a result of military action. But the options for imposing penalties that are significant enough to be taken seriously by Moscow, while still being affordable for the United States and its allies, are few.
“The west can scold Russia and cancel summits, but Moscow has at no time considered words of outrage to be a response which needs to be taken into consideration. And with a veto on the United Nations Security Council, Russia need not be overly concerned at the prospect of action from the UN.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticised western powers for polarising Ukrainian society and for prioritising “geopolitical calculations”.
Speaking at UN meeting in Geneva, Mr Lavrov denied Russia was acting aggressively, after it took control of Crimea over the weekend.
He said: “I repeat this is a matter of defending our citizens and our compatriots, on defending the most important human right – the right to life.
“Those who attempt to interpret the situation as an act of aggression and threaten us with sanctions and boycotts – these are the very same partners of ours who consistently have encouraged political forces close to them to deliver an ultimatum and refuse dialogue, to ignore the concerns of southern and eastern regions of Ukraine, which has ultimately polarised Ukrainian society.
“We call for a responsible approach, to put aside geopolitical calculations, and above all to put the interests of the Ukrainian people first.”
His comments follow those made by Barack Obama, in which he said there would be “costs” for Russia if it carried on down its current interventionist path.
EU leaders are holding intense discussions on how to respond to Russia’s actions, while the G7 group of countries have condemned what it called Russia’s “clear violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”.
Pro-Russian troops have reportedly taken over a ferry terminal on the eastern tip of Crimea, fuelling fears that Moscow is planning to bring in more troops to the Black Sea region. AP said that Russian-speaking soldiers, who refused to identify themselves, were operating the terminal at Kerch.
Stock markets around the world crashed on Monday amid fears of economic retaliation by the west.
A photograph of a document being carried in to Downing Street appeared to reveal elements of Britain’s position towards Russia, including opposition to trade sanctions.
The text of the paper – reported to have been snapped as it was carried into Number 10 by a senior official – referred to support for visa restrictions and travel bans on key figures.
It stated: “UK should not support, for now, trade sanctions…or close London’s financial centre to Russians”.