(CNN, March 3, 2014) — Ukrainian officials say Aleksandr Vitko, the Russian commander of the Black Sea Fleet, went aboard a blocked Ukrainian warship in Crimea’s Sevastopol Harbor on Monday and issued a threat:
“Swear allegiance to the new Crimean authorities, or surrender, or face an attack,” he said, according to Vladislav Seleznev, a Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman in Crimea who spoke to CNN. He said the Russian commander did not mention an ultimatum deadline.
But a spokesman for the Russian Black Sea Fleet said there are no plans to storm Ukrainian military units in Crimea, according to the Interfax news agency.
In an international reaction, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, after leaving an emergency European Union session in Brussels, told CNN on Monday that the EU has agreed that Russia’s actions are an “aggression.” Bildt also said that Russia must de-escalate, withdraw its forces and engage in dialogue. If that doesn’t happen fairly quickly, he added, that would ‘take down’ EU-Russian relations.
Moscow has defended its parliament’s approval of President Vladimir Putin’s use of military force to protect its citizens in the Crimean Peninsula, an autonomous region of eastern Ukraine with strong loyalty to Russia.
“I repeat: This is a matter of defending our citizens and our compatriots, of defending the most important human right — the right to life,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at a U.N. human rights meeting in Geneva, Switzerland.
But Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.N. says Russia’s reasoning for a possible invasion is fake.
“There is no evidence that the Russian ethnic population or Russian-speaking population is under threat,” Ambassador Yuri Sergeyev told CNN.
The Russian parliament, or Duma, is also considering a law that would allow for the annexation of Crimea, according to the parliament’s website.
“Now they are trying to create new legal basis to prove annexation of the territory they’re now occupying,” Sergeyev said.
A senior U.S. administration official told CNN that Russian forces “have complete operational control of the Crimean Peninsula.” The official said the U.S. estimates there are 6,000 Russian ground and naval forces in the region.
“There is no question that they are in an occupation position — flying in reinforcements and settling in,” another senior administration official said.
In Kiev, interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who has accused Moscow of declaring war, vowed that his West-leaning government would not give up the region.
“Nobody will give Crimea away. … There are no grounds for the use of force against civilians and Ukrainians, and for the entry of the Russian military contingent,” he said. “Russia never had any grounds and never will.”
Ukraine’s shaky new government has mobilized troops and called up military reservists.